Business Opportunity: Butterflies Give Tanzanian Farmers Alternative To Deforestation

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Written by Dana Sanchez

Safina Omar began producing charcoal after she was banned from farming near Zanzibar’s Jozani forest, a large mature woodland that is home to more than 50 species of butterflies and an array of endangered species.

The forest lies between the mangrove bays of Chwaka and Uzi on Unguja Island, but for all its beauty, it’s under huge pressure due to deforestation from unsustainable farming and charcoal production, according to a report by the ThomsonReutersFoundation.

Charcoal and firewood represent about 90 percent of energy used for cooking in Tanzania, according to the World Bank.

“I knew charcoal trade is bad for the environment but I was doing it because I couldn’t immediately think of any other way to make money. I had many children to take care of,” Omar told ThomsonReuters.

Butterfly farming has given Omar an alternative that’s attractive for women since butterfly rearing can fit easily around domestic chores.

Up to 500,000 hectares of forests are destroyed each year in Tanzania from charcoal production, poor farming and overgrazing, according to government estimates.

The Zanzibar Butterfly Centre, a community-run initiative, is retraining charcoal producers in villages around the forest as butterfly farmers. It’s not a solution for deforestation, but has helped create awareness and a sense of ownership of the forest among the farmers, according to ThomsonReuters.

A similar project is run by 400 local farmers in Tanzania’s East Usambara Mountains, a biodiverse region where forests are being cleared for farmland and charcoal production, CNN reported.

Established in 2008, the Zanzibar Butterfly Centre has one of Africa’s largest butterfly exhibits. It houses more than 50 species of native butterflies, including the hard-to-catch flying handkerchief, a black and white African swallowtail.

The center is a tourist attraction and also sells butterfly pupae for export.

Located near Jozani Chawka Bay National Park, the center works with Jozani Environmental Conservation Association, drawing tourists interested in seeing local butterflies.

The program gives equipment and training to butterfly farmers who can earn up to $250 a month selling butterfly pupae to the center’s own tourist exhibit and to overseas buyers, said project facilitator Natalie Tempel-Merzougui in a ThomsonReuters interview.

Here’s how Tanzanians become butterfly farmers: they catch a few female butterflies and transfer them to mesh cages so they can lay eggs. Farmers collect the eggs and raise the caterpillars by feeding them on host plants until they turn to pupae.

Here’s where they start making money. Butterfly farmers sell the pupae to the butterfly center, which sells them for export or keeps them until they hatch for display to tourists.

The amount each farmer can earn depends on what species and how many pupae they bring to the center. Species that are rare and hard to farm earn more, Merzougui said.

Butterfly farming is much easier than producing charcoal, said Rungu Hamisi, whose income has improved markedly, ThomsonReuters reported.

One of the benefits is that butterflies mature much faster than crops.

“I get enough money to support my family,” he said. “Once the eggs hatch and become caterpillars, it takes only a matter of weeks before they transform into butterflies ready for sale.”

Many types of agriculture require clearing of forest, Merzoughui said. Butterfly farming requires intact forests and provides an economic incentive to conserve them, Merzoughui.

“Most of the farmers we have trained to rear butterflies no longer cut down trees,” said Alfred George, assistant manager of the butterfly center.

The initiative is not a solution for deforestation but has helped create awareness and a sense of ownership of the forest among the farmers, George said.

The Amani Butterly Project in Tanzania’s East Usambara Mountains sells pupae for between $1 and $2.50 each to live butterfly exhibits in the U.S. and Europe, CNN reported in 2012. The farmers get 65 of the proceeds and 7 percent goes to a community development fund that helps build schools and hospitals.

Because most tropical butterflies don’t live long, exhibits usually order new pupae every two to three weeks, according to CNN.

Farmers keep some pupae from each generation, so they rarely need to catch more female butterflies from the wild, although they sometimes catch new male butterflies to maintain genetic diversity in their farms.

The project now uses 400 butterfly farmers, more than half of them women, according to the Amani project.

Butterflies are a non-traditional product for export, and can reduce the effect of dependence by many countries on a few staple commodities such as coffee, sugar or bananas, according to a report in TheButterflyFarm.

Butterflies generate foreign exchange income for economies starved of hard currency. In addition to being aesthetically beautiful, butterfly farming is unobtrusive.

Kenya is one of the world’s leading producers of butterfly pupae, along with Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, Kenya, U.S., El Salvador, Surinam, Ecuador and Costa Rica.

A country has “few finer representatives abroad than its butterflies,” TheButterflyFarm reported.