Though the tropical island of Zanzibar, off the Tanzanian coast in the Indian Ocean, is renowned as an island of spices, white beaches and turquoise waters, it is also home to many incredibly poor people who never see the benefits of the floods of tourists who arrive for their holiday in the sun. Out of a population of just over a million, around 42% of the population works in agriculture and 55% of rural people live below the poverty line.

However, people living in the northern Zanzibar village of Chaani Mcheza Shauri are slowly improving their livelihoods and reducing poverty, thanks to the efforts of their local cooperatives and the support provided to them by the ILO Cooperative Facility for Africa (COOPAfrica) Programme as part of a project launched in July 2009 and completed in June 2011.

The project targeted 70 members of Ona Mbele Cooperative Society, 60 of whom were women, who were growing vegetables and grain, keeping poultry and engaging in petty trade. They lacked the production and entrepreneurial skills that would have helped make their endeavours really meaningful in terms of increased incomes and improved livelihoods. The women spent long hours every week traveling to the nearest town to have their grain milled as they had no mill in their own community.

The appropriately named Ona Mbele Cooperative (literally “having a vision”) had been formed in 1992 with the aim of eliminating extreme poverty in the community. It ran hand-operated grain mills but its capacity was too limited to satisfy the needs of the community. Ona Mbele also lacked the technical, managerial and financial resources to strengthen and upscale its activities as well as those of the other cooperative societies in its vicinity that it was supporting.

The COOPAfrica project helped build the cooperative’s capacity by training its leaders in cooperative organization and leadership, management, governance and democratic practices and entrepreneurship. Through the project the cooperative’s building has been renovated and connected to electric power. An electric grain milling plant has been purchased and installed. The project also provided training in poultry and vegetable production, distributed inputs, basic equipment and tools, and developed the women’s entrepreneurial skills.

According to Omar Juma Kidua, the project’s manager, change has begun to show in the lives of the members. At least 10 new full-time jobs have been created in the community, and the time saved from traveling in search of milling facilities has been used for other productive work. With improved poultry-keeping facilities, chicken and egg production has increased. Poultry farmers are earning higher incomes and their families’ health has improved from extra chicken meat and eggs in their diet. The entrepreneurial skills acquired by members has improved their performance and their small businesses are better run and yield higher profits. The livelihoods of the members are gradually improving. The project has become self-sustaining and will hopefully remain that way.

Resources permitting, there is tremendous potential for success in replicating the project in other parts of Zanzibar, as it holds promise for improved livelihoods through knowledge and skill development, and implementation of income-generating cooperative activities in which cooperative and community members drive the process and are the direct beneficiaries.