Can we grow spice like a forest?

By Daimen Hardie, Executive Director, Posted on July 3, 2019

In the spring of 2015, I put out a call for help. Our small team at Community Forests International was starting a new initiative — a spice agroforestry project on Pemba island, Zanzibar — and I knew we couldn’t do it alone. What happened next has taught me a lot about the process of innovation. It has also taught me how much I still don’t know about the extraordinary island where I work.

Innovation is risky; timing is everything.

Backing up a bit, the Spice Forest idea actually arose in 2010 while I was studying permaculture with Rosemary Morrow in southern Uganda. Of all her teachings what struck me most was the concept of mimicking local ecology in agricultural systems. Thinking of our own work in Pemba, I wondered if we could hybridize forest restoration with the island’s traditional spice plantations – and create something better for the land and for farmers.

I was eager to break ground on the new project, but more than 5 years would pass before our organization was ready to take the risk. Timing is a major obstacle in the long and treacherous road from concept to working reality. At Community Forests International, we try to make an honest appraisal of that journey before starting a new project. There’s no guarantee of success, and we have to be ruthless in choosing how we invest our efforts each day to ensure that we’re still in the business tomorrow.

In the words of our mentor, Marcel Lebrun, “It’s about earning the right to do the next thing.”

Innovation is risky, and sometimes it’s best to put a really solid idea in a holding pattern until the timing is right. It can feel like giving up, but it’s actually about doubling down and giving your work the best opportunity for success.

Share the struggle

By 2015, we had a thriving tree-planting movement spreading across Pemba Island, and were keenly pursing other ventures. Anything that would keep up the momentum and help grow the island’s green economy further was now fair game.

Our Pemban colleagues branched out to help farmers plant rows of fruit and timber trees alongside their annual crops. This popular agroforestry program offered a bridge to even deeper ecological modelling on the farm landscape. After sitting on the shelf for five years, it looked like the timing was finally right to pilot the Spice Forest idea.

A man walks in an agroforest in Zanzibar.

Community Forests Pemba is helping farmers transition from monoculture plantations to resilient forest agro-systems.

Our team set the intention and started sharing the idea of growing spice like a forest in Pemba. Picture a jungle of trees and vines all producing edible spices – things like cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, and cardamom – and you get the idea.  We were hoping to gain insight from similar efforts around the world. But nearly a year went by and absolutely nothing came back. I was left thinking we would have to build this new agro-ecological system basically on our own; a daunting task which made me question the future of the project.

We were once again weighing the journey, and close to pulling back, when we finally got our big break. A contact in the permaculture world learned about the Spice Forest vision and our struggles, and put us in touch with Lush Cosmetics.

Based in England with outlets around the world, Lush is a cosmetics company at the forefront of a movement beyond sustainability and toward regenerative business practices. Rather than just minimizing the negative impacts of its operations, Lush is building supply chains that create positive change from one end to the other. And the company has established a global investment fund backed by a passionate team of experts to make it happen.

Just as we were trying to raise the bar on ecological production in Pemba, Lush was raising the bar on ethical sourcing and green business practices. Because many of the ingredients Lush uses for its products are spice crops that grow well in forest-like settings, there was a clear opportunity for collaboration. We had our first partner and it happened to be an industry leader.

We didn’t get exactly what we were looking for when we broadcast our project to the world – we got something even better. Being honest about the struggles and sharing the innovation process opens the door to serendipitous connections, sometimes leading to unanticipated breakthroughs.

Innovation is a living process

With encouragement and seed funding from Lush our team is now actively prototyping the Spice Forest concept at our R&D site and on farms across Pemba. Another link in the innovation chain has been secured.

There remains one final stretch in the road – that is diffusion and adoption – and this promises to be the most challenging yet.

Without strong buy-in from farmers and decision-makers throughout Pemba the Spice Forest project will never make a significant contribution to the local ecology and economy. The concept might be technically sound and there might be a strong market for the produce, but without mobilizing key players to refine it and bring it to scale we will fall short of the mark. There is a vital cultural element to innovation which can’t be prescribed. It has to be nurtured like a living thing.

It’s at times like these that I appreciate how much we rely on our Pemban colleagues. They have the technical know-how to innovate successfully, and the cultural awareness to build partnerships with farmers in Pemba while navigating the complex politics of spice trading. If the Spice Forest idea survives this last and most arduous mile on the innovation path it will be because of their leadership. Stay tuned.

Innovation is not all cogs and wheels. Technical details and strategy are important, but it’s culture and people ultimately determine success.