riceAmerican Haidar Hold the coconut to your ear and shake it from side to side. Its jiggling delighted a market trader, who put the big brown ovoid back on a pile at his stall outside the city of Zanzibar on the East African island.
However, his clients were not so happy. A coconut that cost 500 Tanzanian shillings ($0.20) a few years ago costs 1,500 shillings today. This makes it more expensive to make curries or other dishes using coconut milk. “The prices you see,” Mr Haidar said, “they’re not normal. Coconuts have become expensive for the locals.”
Why are the prices crazy? “People were chopping, hacking,” explained Omar Yusuf Juma, another coconut seller, brandishing a machete to effect. A 2013-14 count found just 3.4 million coconut trees, down from 5.7 million in the late 1990s. As hungry Zanzibarans still demand creamy fish curry and beans baked in coconut milk, reduced supplies have driven up prices. Nuts from the mainland are more expensive due to high transport costs.
The deforestation of coconut palms reflects the urbanization of Zanzibar and other parts of Africa. The defining feature of Africa’s expanding cities is sprawl: cities sprawl out rather than up. As Zanzibar City expanded further into its former countryside, when people moved to new plots, they would cut down coconut trees to make room for new homes.
Additionally, some houses, as well as many of the island’s hotels, feature furniture made of coconut wood. It is cheaper than imported alternatives, explains carpenter Emmanuel Elias. By law, farmers can’t cut down fruiting trees to make furniture; it’s actually pretty hard to stop them. Even if they follow the rules, many people don’t plant new trees because they take at least six years to bear fruit and 15 years to reach peak yield. It turns out that state subsidies for seedlings cannot keep up with the growth of urban populations.
In his studio, Mr Elias is dusting off a stylish dressing table that sells for Sh400,000. He points to the striking black spots within the grain as a hallmark of coconut wood. “This is the land of coconut trees,” he said. But how long?