Tanzania: One butterfly farming project in the East Usambara Mountains is giving women a stronger voice in their communities.
Sitting opposite me on a small stool beside a rather primitive dwelling in the tiny village of Fanusi, northeast Tanzania, is Rosie Marishali. A soft-spoken young woman who has been working as a butterfly farmer for seven years now, I can see she is a little daunted by the microphone placed in front of her as we begin our interview. Nonetheless, she settles well into our conversation and becomes more assured of herself as we discuss a livelihood which has positively impacted her life.
Now in its tenth year of operation, the Amani Butterfly Project is a non-profit organisation based in the East Usambara Mountains which has been generating income for local butterfly farmers from six villages by helping them to farm and market native butterflies, some of which are exclusive to the region. The initial mission of the project was to reduce poverty and create an incentive for forest conservation, but it has proved to have one other major positive knock-on effect; giving women a greater voice in their communities. The project benefits from the support of the Tanzanian Forest Conservation Group, an NGO that has assisted the enterprise both financially and administratively with the help of funding from various donors, including a $5,000 donation from Irish Aid, which helped build the project's office in 2003.
The Butterfly Project is the brainchild of a young American biologist by the name of Theron Morgan-Brown. Loosely based on a similar project in Kenya, Morgan-Brown produced a body of research as part of his undergraduate degree; a feasibility study on how butterfly farming could be introduced to the East Usambara Mountains, an area renowned for its ecological importance. With this project, locals were given the opportunity to generate an alternative source of income through an activity which encourages conservation. Furthermore, it would take place in an area which was suffering from the detremental effects of logging by those seeking to produce charcoal or who were clearing forest to create farmland.
The project has been generating income through the sale of pupae to live butterfly exhibits in the United States and Europe for between $1 and $2.50 each. Of that sum, 65 per cent goes directly to the farmers, 28 per cent goes back into the project, while the remaining 7 per cent goes to a community development fund that contributes to projects in participating villages; all in a country where an estimated 58 per cent of the population live on less than a dollar a day.
I was eager to hear from the female farmers about the changes the project has brought about. Involving women was an important focus for the Tanzanian Conservation Group from the outset, and for much of the project’s ten-year existence, women have accounted for up to 50 per cent of the farmers. Rosie describes the impact it has had: “Since becoming a butterfly farmer, there has been many changes to my life. I have managed to have a house, a bicycle and my conditions have improved a lot.”
She also explains how she has managed to gain the trust of others in the village because of her new profession. “If I need something from a shop I can just go and ask and I'll be given it because they know I will have the money at the end of the month.” More important than gaining respect from the local shopkeeper, being involved in the project has enabled women to have a voice at the local village meetings where they decide how community funds, generated through butterfly farming as well as through other means, should be spent. It was at a Fanusi Village meeting that the women pushed for the development of a new pipe water system so they would no longer have to travel many miles by foot each day in order to access a crucial daily amenity.
The founder Morgan-Brown explained to me how butterfly farming is an ideal activity for local women for numerous reasons. “In the Tanzanian context it doesn’t really conflict with some of the other responsibilities that society puts on women,” he says. “So it’s something you can do in your backyard. It doesn’t involve a lot of demanding physical labour and it was sort of a perfect income generating activity for anybody to participate in.”
Gender equality is something very much on the Tanzanian Government's agenda right now and Irish Aid, which has been present in the country for thirty years, works hard to support this strategy, through its work with NGOs, small community-based groups and the Government itself. Aileen O'Donovan, Development Specialist at the Irish Embassy in Dar es Saleem, explains their approach: “Gender equality is one of our major priorites in our programme in Tanzania and we're working with both the Government and civil society to empower women to have equal rights. Gender equality is critical in terms of ensuring that women have access to market, access to incomes and are actually empowered to make decisions. For example, when it comes to agriculture, while women carry out a lot of the labour they may not necessarily have access to land, access to the market and are not actually part of the decision-making. Most of it would be men making those decisions. But what we have learned is that by supporting women to be part of those processes and to play a critical role in terms of agriculture and the decision-making, then you can see developments.”
Back in Fanusi, Rosie opens up when asked whether she has been an inspiration to her friends in the village. “I have inspired a lot of my friends and I have made more people trust me,” she says with a smile. “When we began butterfly farming people were laughing at us. They said we were wasting our time because we didn't know how the project would develop but then when they saw the impact it had they decided themselves to write a special request so they too could become members of the butterfly project.”
Joseph O'Connor travelled to Tanzania with support from the Simon Cumbers Media Fund The fund was set up in memory of Irish journalist Simon Cumbers. In June 2004, at the age of 36, Cumbers was shot dead in Saudi Arabia while working with the BBC.
A photographic exhibition on this project will be launched by Minister for Trade & Development Joe Costello at the Irish Aid Office on O'Connell Street, Thursday January 9th at 6pm and will run until the end of January.
Radio producer Paul Loughran accompanied Joseph to Tanzania and a 30-minute radio documentary entitled 'The Butterfly Effect' will broadcast on local community radio station Near FM on Friday February 21st @ 6pm. You can listen online. A podcast will also be made available from February 24th.