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Small-scale innovations in coastal communities: shell-handicraft as a way to empower women and decrease poverty

Sara Fröcklin, Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden
Narriman S. Jiddawi, Institute of Marine Science, University of Dar es Salaam, Zanzibar, Tanzania
Maricela de la Torre-Castro, Department of Physical Geography, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden


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We analyzed the potential of small-scale innovations, such as shell-handicraft, as a way to foster transformation toward sustainability, decrease poverty, and increase women’s empowerment in Zanzibar, Tanzania. The shell-handicraft project was founded by USAID in 2006 and was introduced as an alternative livelihood to low-paid seaweed farming and invertebrate harvesting activities. The main objective, however, was to not only alleviate poverty and empower women, but also to improve management of coastal resources, and allegedly by doing so, break poverty traps. To analyze the potential benefits of this enterprise, and more specifically whether or not women involved in this project have been empowered, a framework was used that comprises three inter-related dimensions; agency, access to resources, and outcome. Agency includes the process of decision making, negotiation, etc., in which choices are made and put into effect. Access to resources (financial, physical, human, and social) is the medium through which agency is exercised, and outcome can be defined as the result of agency. Simply put, resources and agency make up people’s potential for living the lives they want. Semistructured interviews were administered to a group of women (n = 36) involved in shell-handicraft and a group of women not involved in shell-handicraft (n = 36) in five villages located in central/south Zanzibar. The results show that over time, the women engaged in shell-handicraft have improved their access to a range of resources, mainly physical (house, cell phone, freezer, and electricity), human (knowledge in marketing, leadership, and entrepreneurship), and social (organization). This further resulted in reported improved self-confidence and decision-making authority within the household. Regarding financial resources, both savings and income improved for the targeted group, but more research is advised. Positively, the environmental impacts of the activity are seemingly low. Old shells are collected for handicraft and a number of no-take zones, as part of the project, have been established to preserve marine resources, which allowed for women’s participation in coastal management. The project has also empowered women and challenged stereotypes, aspects critical for progressive and inclusive management. Although all in all, the women interviewed were satisfied and had increased their standard of living, the discussion problematizes this innovation by addressing scaling up possibilities, market constraints, and the kick-off process having external top-down elements. Even though the recipients of the benefits from the project have been few, this case has valuable elements to learn from and can provide inspiration to drive coastal systems into more sustainable paths.

Key words

coastal livelihoods; empowerment; poverty; resilience; transformations; Zanzibar

Copyright © 2018 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance. This article is under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. You may share and adapt the work provided the original author and source are credited, you indicate whether any changes were made, and you include a link to the license.

Ecology and Society. ISSN: 1708-3087