A New Permaculture for Pemba Island – Will you help us build it?


Pemban woman planting ‘mtondoo’ (Callophylum innophlum) for bank stabilization (Photo Zach Melanson, 2014)

The problem . . .

Tanzania’s Zanzibar islands were once a bastion of the global spice trade, an exchange that drove the world’s economy from the Middle Ages into modern times. The region, and mainly the island of Pemba, remain famous for the production of cloves – those aromatic flower buds that look like tiny claw & ball feet. Remnant clove plantations still dominate the hilly landscape across the entire western half of Pemba. During the prime harvest season from September through November their distinct perfume fills the island air.


Thousands of tiny clove buds drying on mats in the equatorial sun. (Photo Zach Melanson, 2014)

Pemba’s indigenous forest was originally cleared in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Sadly characteristic of the removal of native vegetation throughout the tropics, this left the thin deposit of organic matter which the forest had built up and maintained for thousands of years – the foundation of fertility for the entire ecosystem – dangerously exposed. Beneath this rich organic layer was a subsoil deficient in minerals and susceptible to erosion. By chance, Pemba’s native forest was originally replaced by a tree crop (cloves are produced by a small tree in the Myrtaceae family – Syzygium aromaticum) which has played a less effective but similar biological role in maintaining soil fertility to this day[1]. This small bit of good luck however, Pemba’s last of line of defense against complete soil degradation, is now wearing thin.


Once lush forest, much of Pemba has been cleared for annual agriculture, leaving land exposed to the elements (Photo Zach Melanson, 2015)

An expansion of global clove production and a drastic decline in world market prices over the past two decades have had a devastating impact on Zanzibar’s clove industry. Pemba’s smallholder farmers have been the hardest hit. This trend, coupled with the pressures of a rapidly growing population, is driving farmers to expand annual cropping into hilly areas previously reserved for clove trees. What’s left of the critical organic layer covering the poor subsoils throughout Pemba’s western region is now at risk of being lost to annual maize and cassava cultivation. A threat that is now compounded by a changing climate.

Pemba’s hills and soils are meant to be protected by a permanent cover of forest, the message is written clearly on the land. But farmers need to earn a living, or to put it more bluntly, Pembans need to eat. These conflicting realities are like a microcosm of a much larger global issue, mainly our human relationship with the environment. Does this problem always have to be a zero sum game? Can farmers amplify natural processes and structures to build abundance by design? In short, is there a permaculture solution to Pemba Island’s growing land use challenges?

The solution . . .

On mainland Tanzania, in the southern foothills of Mount Kilimanjaro, there survives a remarkable land use tradition that may hold many of the answers. Known as the ‘Chagga homegardens’ (or ‘banana forests’), this centuries-old practice combines agriculture, forestry and animal husbandry so effectively that it sustains one of the highest population densities in rural Africa[2]. It does so by working with nature. More specifically, by working with the diversity and multilayered structure of the region’s natural montane forest.


Vegetation profile of typical Chagga homegarden (Andreas Hemp. “The banana forests of Kilimanjaro: biodiversity and conservation of the Chagga homegardens. 2005.)

Chagga homegardens produce abundantly – food, traditional medicine, timber, fuelwood, and a coffee cash crop – while maintaining a high level of biodiversity and ecological integrity throughout the working landscape[3]. Researcher Dr. Andreas Hemp at the University of Bayreauth has documented over 500 species of plants within the Chagga system including a productive herb layer (<1 m tall), shrub layer (1–10 m tall), and tree layer (>10 m tall) as well as numerous climbers and epiphytes[4]. Environmental degradation in this densely populated region is rare – a happy anomaly that points to the success of the Chagga’s ‘work with nature’ approach. For all these reasons and more, the Chagga tradition is increasingly being held up as Tanzania’s home-grown example of permaculture.

The precedent of a local model provides hope for transferring successful techniques to Pemba and adapting them to the island’s unique cultural and environmental conditions. Pemban farmers could innovate their land use in a way that not only halts a trend of degradation but actually reverses it, beginning restoration of both the island’s forest ecosystem and spice-based rural economy. These are bold propositions, but we’ve got a long-term vision.

How-to . . .


Pemban community member Bi-Majo waters 2 year old clove seedlings in her community’s nursery. The community maintains complete ownership and direction of the nursery, and have reinvested revenues from seedling sales in water infrastructure for the nursery and community.

Though we don’t have all the answers at Community Forests International, we do have many of the necessary ingredients to make this work. Strong trust across all levels of Pemban society, a track-record that includes over 1 million trees planted to date, and success in broadscale mobilization on issues ranging from community land tenure to community-based renewable energy. Above all else, we’ve got a passionate team, including our very own in-house permaculture designer.


Siti Makame, CFI’s Agriculture Officer, works in the demonstration kitchen garden at the Rural Innovation Campus, Pemba, Tanzania (Photo: Zach Melanson, 2015)

Two years ago, our Agricultural Officer Siti Makame participated in the world’s first ever Kiswahili language permaculture course and became the first Pemban to receive an internationally recognized Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). Her training was hosted by Food Water Shelter in partnership with the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya and the course was instructed by PRI-Kenya’s co-founder Nicholas Syano. A skilled horticulturalist and member of the Zanzibar Clove Growers Association, Siti brings a depth of experience in agricultural research and extension training to this work.

Siti has already helped dozens of women across Pemba to establish small-scale permaculture plots around their homes and in many ways these gardens will now serve as training grounds for a larger, landscape-level system. This ‘start small’ and ‘transition to change’ process is central to our approach, an example of permaculture principles in action at an organizational level. Siti will lead our team as we develop a new, Chagga-inspired permaculture system specially suited to Pemba: an innovation that we’ve coined the ‘Spice Forest’.

The Pemba ‘Spice Forest’ . . .

Although Pemba’s stake in world clove production has dwindled, traditional spice knowledge is still very much alive among the region’s farmers. The island is unique in that it supports the cultivation of an exceptionally diverse array of crops originating both from the African continent and from more distant regions including India and the Mediterranean. It’s not uncommon to find over a dozen varieties of fresh spice in a Pemban farmer’s market including cardamom, black pepper, vanilla, ginger, turmeric, coriander, lemon grass, cinnamon, etc.


Pemban spice farmer with a handful of precious vanilla bean. (Photo: Zach Melanson, 2015)

Because of a steady domestic demand for spice and its relatively high value compared to other farm products, there is an economic incentive to produce spice crops even though farmers currently lack strong links to more profitable export markets. This is something that farmers approach our organization about regularly – requesting assistance to improve both their spice production capacity and their access to value-add enterprise.

Just a quick note about the economic side of this, because I know monetization isn’t everybody’s cup of chai. One of the main reasons that the Chagga homegardens have survived into the modern age is because of a more recent cash crop introduction – coffee – which compliments the system and injects cash into the associated rural economy. Spice is Pemba’s best bet for a stand-in cash crop. Economic sustainability is part of the larger picture, right behind ecological and social wellbeing. The financial permaculture of this project is beyond the scope of this article, but it is essential to its success.

The proven history, existing stakeholder knowledge base and demand, and the strong potential for income generation has motivated our team to develop a new permaculture system for Pemba largely based on spice crops. Beyond spices, we aim to develop a full agroecosystem that provides food, energy (over 90% of the energy consumed in Tanzania is biomass[5]), and income security while restoring ecological function to the landscape. A uniquely Pemban solution with both the island’s spice tradition and its lost forest as its foundation.

The future . . .


Pemban grown cardamom. (Photo Zach Melanson, 2015)

It’s early days for the Spice Forest project. We’ve identified some major challenges, found hopeful precedent for solutions, and we’re beginning to see opportunities in the problems. Preliminary research into intercropping methodology for spices is encouraging. For example, a recent study conducted in Tanzania’s Usambara mountains indicates that both black pepper and cardamom intercropped with grevillea robusta greatly outperforms monoculture production (a 390% and 230% increase of yield respectively[6]). If any readers know of similar anecdotal or academic findings I would love to hear about them.

Innovation isn’t easy – especially when you’re talking about adapting how people work the land. One of my main motivations for writing this article is to start a conversation, in hopes that there are practitioners out there who will share their insights and help guide our process. The finer details of a new tree-based agroecosystem for Pemba will ultimately be refined on the ground by Pemban farmers. Existing analogous models can accelerate the process though, which is why we’re calling on the network of permaculture doers and thinkers around the world to help us advance a truly regenerative and sustainable solution. Sharing innovation is key.

Our approach, going forward, is as follows:

  1. crowd-source input from the global permaculture and agroforestry community;
  2. engage lead farmers to guide innovation;
  3. study analogous models with a view to adapting them locally;
  4. produce ‘Master Plan’ for a model Spice Forest and establish a ‘proof of concept’ working model at the Rural Innovation Campus on Pemba Island;
  5. document & study the results;
  6. refine, refine, refine the techniques;
  7. roll out the Spice Forest approach to early adopters through extension training; and finally
  8. share everything to scale up the innovation.


Community Forests International’s Rural Innovation Campus, Pemba Tanzania. (Photo: Zach Melanson, 2014)

Pemba was once known as Al Jazeera Al Khadra in Arabic – The Green Island. Can this namesake be restored with some hard-won innovation and a little help from mother nature? What do you think? Do you believe in this vision for a new spice-based agroecosystem for Pemba Island? Please share your knowledge – we’ll put it to good work!

Daimen Hardie is Program Director at Community Forests International, a start-up based in rural New Brunswick, Canada that is obsessed with sharing positive solutions. To learn more please visit


  1. S. Abbas et. al., The Problem of Agriculture Development in the Clove Areas of Pemba: Principal Findings of a Study of Daya Farners’ Research Group. Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, and Natural Resources – Zanzibar Cash Crops Farming Systems Project (ZCCFSP), Working Paper No. WP 95/27, August 1995.
  2. Success Stories on Climate-Smart Horticulture. Food and Agriculture Organzation, United Nations. 2014. (pp. 5).
  3. Andreas Hemp. The banana forests of Kilimanjaro: biodiversity and conservation of the Chagga homegardens. Biodiversity and Conservation (2005).
  4. Andreas Hemp. The banana forests of Kilimanjaro: biodiversity and conservation of the Chagga homegardens. Biodiversity and Conservation (2005).
  5. National Climate Change Strategy. United Republic of Tanzania Vice President’s Office – Division of Environment. 2012 (pp.15).
  6. T. Reyes, R. Quiroz, O. Luukkanen, F. de Mendiburu. Spice crops agroforestry systems in the East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania: growth analysis. Springer. 2009.

One Comment

  1. Similar to the Chagga systems, there may be indigenous agroforestry systems within your region (Zanzibar Archipelago)?

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