MAFIA ISLAND TANZANIA image branding - people of Mafia Island

Archaeology and history
Tourism and Hotels
Health problems and projects
Non-governmental organisations
Photo gallery
Historical Photo gallery

Economy of Mafia Island

Mafia is currently considered to be one of the poorest areas of Tanzania. Its inhabitants are largely dependent upon agriculture and fishing.

Subsistence farming and cash crops: coconuts and cashew-nuts

Feller up a coconut tree Mafia Island has long had a mixed economy dependent both upon subsistence and cash farming. The north of the island, where more bush land is available, is more heavily weighted towards subsistence farming and people grow dry and wet rice, cassava, beans, peas, corn, tomatoes and other crops. Most of the southern half of the island is planted up with coconut and cashew-nut trees, which produce Mafia's longest-standing cash crops. Both coconuts and the smaller cashew-nut crop are exported directly to the markets in Dar es Salaam. The price of coconuts has fallen on world markets in recent years, partly because of over-production and partly because of a lessening of demand. While the price of cashew-nuts is comparatively higher, the trees on Mafia are subject to disease.


Boatyard, Mwapepo, Chole IslandIn recent years, fishing has become more significant on the coast of East Africa generally and on Mafia in particular and has also been commercialised to a large extent, a major reason for the conservation measures adopted by the Mafia Island Marine Park. Although fin-fish are important both in terms of local consumption and export to Dar es Salaam (either dried or in boats with cooler boxes), it is crustaceans such as lobsters and prawns, and cephalopods such as squid and octopus which are increasingly in demand for export and which fetch higher prices. A small Greek-owned fish processing factory in the district capital Kilindoni has been replaced by a much larger plant owned by the Kenyan-based company Alpha Africa dealing mainly in crustaceans and cephalopods

The fishing industry on Mafia, as elsewhere on the East Coast, is not without its problems, and

There are a number of useful publications by N.S. Jiddawi of the Institute of Marine Studies in Zanzibar. These can be accessed by searching for his name on Google.

A Master's thesis by Catherine Msigwa Chando entitled Gender Roles in Fishery Planning and Projects: the Case Study of Coast Region in Tanzania has a section on Mafia and the Marine Park 2002.pdf

Video clips:
Clip 1 - (QuickTime - 2.5M)
Clip 2 - (QuickTime - 3.2M)

Women's work: making mats

Group of women seated and plaitingFor women, the main source of cash is the making of raffia mats. The large ones used for sitting or sleeping on are called mikeka while the smaller oval ones using for praying are called misala. The raffia palm grows in the bush outside the villages. The fronds (ukindu) are first cut and then placed to dry in the sun. After this, each frond is sliced and then plaited into strips (ukili) which are dyed. Women plait raffia on every conceivable occasion, and it is not unusual to see a woman walking along with her raffia basket in her head, her hands busy plaiting. Finally the strips are sewn together to make a mat or prayer-mat, with a border being sewn around the former.

Although Mafia is famous for its mats, the women receive relatively little money for them - perhaps T.Sh 2000 (= £1 sterling) in the village. They are bought up by male traders who sell them in Kariakoo market in Dar es Salaam. A woman can make perhaps half a dozen mats a year and uses the cash to buy clothes for herself and her children.

Video clip:
Clip 1 - (QuickTime - 4.4M)

[ Please see photo gallery ]

Development proposals

There are currently three sets of proposals to develop Mafia's economy: prawn farming, oil exploration and tourism. The first two of these are considered below, the last is the subject of the next page.

Prawn farming

A plan to set up a large prawn farm in the Rufiji Delta in the 1990s was contested by local people, who threatened to take the government to court. They were supported by the Lawyers' Environmental Action Team (LEAT) whose websites contains a number of reports and articles:

There was a considerable controversy around this proposal both nationally and internationally during the 1990s and there are many websites which cover this.

Several reports in the Bulletin of the World Rainforest Movement cover both the proposed Rufiji project and other prawn farming schemes elsewhere in the world ( as does a national report on Tanzania by the Shrimp Sentinel on line of Earthwatch summit:

Alpha Africa (, the company which owns the TANPESCA fish processing plant on Mafia, plans to set up a prawn farm in northern Mafia This proposal is discussed in my 2002 report to COSTECH (pdf 778KB), the Tanzanian Commission for Science and Technology, available on

Oil prospecting

It has been clear for some time that the Mafia Channel and Island indicate a considerable hydrocarbon potential. The following links give information about prospecting for oil and gas on and around Mafia Island:

There is a useful short exploration history by the Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation

By 2002 oil companies were spending over $293million on oil exploration in Tanzania:

While it is often considered that the discovery of oil could solve many of Tanzania's problems of chronic poverty, a warning note is sounded by Giles Foden in his article 'They made a mess of Nigeria...',,1039299,00.html

References and further reading

Caplan, Pat. 1981: "Development Policies in Tanzania: Some Implications for Women" in The Journal of Development Studies 17, 3: 98-108 (also published in N. Nelson (ed.) African Women in the Development Process London: Frank Cass, 1981)

Caplan, Pat, 1994. 'The Meaning of Development; Mafia as an example' English translation of lecture given in Swahili in Kilindoni, Mafia Island (pdf - 155K)

Caplan Pat, 1994. 'Maana ya maendeleo ni nini? Mfano wa Mafia'. Hobuba iliyotolewa Kilindoni, Mafia. (pdf - 238K)

-- 1995a. Food, Health and Fertility Further Investigated with Particular Reference to Gender: a Report on Fieldwork on Mafia Island, Tanzania, June-August 1994. Report present to the Tanzania National Scientific Research Council, July 1995 (38pp.)

-- 2003. 'Struggling to be modern: recent letters from Mafia Island'. In P. Caplan and F. Topan (eds.) Swahili Modernities. Lawrenceville, NJ.: Africa World Press.

Van Spengen, Wim, 1979. 'Structural Characteristics of Underdevelopment in the Mafia Archipelago: an Historical Analysis', Cahiers d'Etudes Africaines, XX (3): 331-53.

Walley, Christine, 2004. Rough Waters: nature and development in an East African Marine Park. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press.