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Opinion: Tanzanian farmers must become competitive

Anaclet Rwegayura
August 26, 2017

Tanzanian farmers are looking for opportunities to grow and sustain their business in complex environments. This requires not only improved inputs and technology but also new thinking, says Anaclet Rwegayura.

An African farmer cuts through maize to prepare water channels
Image: AP

Reports on crop production or other farm activities in Tanzania make one conjure up images of large barns for storing grains and sheltering livestock in the so-called granary regions. But moving around the country, one actually finds a largely underdeveloped landscape and small-scale cultivators in outlying areas.

Read more: Technology boosts Tanzanian farmers

The once famous sisal plantations became neglected after government sold them to private companies. Former state-run wheat farms have disappeared, while coffee and tea estates in the highland regions either shrank or the shrubs were uprooted by farmers who opted for more lucrative crops.

The growth of Tanzania's agricultural exports in the past was part of a worldwide trend in markets seeking tropical produce and a typical response to price incentives.

A photo of author Anaclet Rwegayura
Anaclet Rwegayura is a veteran Tanzanian journalistImage: Privat

At present, the farming industry is under unprecedented pressure. Crop prices fluctuate in an unpredictable way and every season farmers wonder what seeds they should choose to enable them to adjust to the cost of inputs and labor. That is, however, just one side of the industry.

More work, fewer resources

On the other side, the government aims to achieve a sustained agricultural growth rate of five percent per annum, primarily through the transformation from subsistence to commercial agriculture. The livelihoods of around 80 percent of the population depend on subsistence farming.

Owing to rising costs, producers have to do more work with fewer resources. It is time the government took the lead in creating lineal operating environments so that operators in the sector can realize cost savings, regain confidence in farming and invest in modern technologies.

In 2015, the agricultural sector accounted for 29 percent of Tanzania's Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Last year, it registered just 29.1 percent of GDP. Despite this dismal performance, authorities maintain that this sector will be the backbone of the country's industry based economy by 2025.

This begs the question; will small scale farmers, who rely on a hand-to-mouth crop trading system largelycontrolled by spot buyers, be part of that success?

Tanzania's young labor force is rapidly expanding but it can hardly find its place in agriculture. Many rural youths drift to urban areas although they lack skills to qualify them for well paid jobs.

A female farmer stands in a field of dry maize
This Tanzanian farmer would benefit from learning about new maize varietiesImage: CC/ CIMMYT

Development of the agricultural sector in Tanzania should be an inclusive business that integrates the population along with its entire value chain, driven by a diverse set of actors, from the initial stage of land preparations to planting, harvesting, crop drying, transportation, storage, processing, packaging and marketing.

Farmers must work with research institutions

As household incomes rise, consumer spending is bound to grow, also due to attraction from a variety of whole food products now on the market. Instead of buying raw beans from retail stalls, for instance, consumers may prefer to purchase clean packs of selected local beans from supermarkets.

The first week of August every year is the national occasion to honor local farmers in Tanzania. The festival centers on agricultural shows and climaxes on Nane Nane Day, which is usually celebrated on August 8 as a national holiday.

Unlike the annual international trade fair organized in Dar es Salaam and its local replicas staged at regional capitals around the country in the first week of July, Nane Nane appears as a sideshow that attracts fewer people who are largely not keen farmers.

I think the main point is that for the Nane Nane festival to show the real character of crop and livestock development, Tanzania needs to revitalize the agricultural sector by involving a new class of farmers who work in tandem with research institutions.

At these fairs, farmers and experts should come together to discuss agri-business, natural resource management and, above all, the effects of climate change. Most Tanzanian farmers are not well informed about links between climate information and their day-to-day activities in the fields.

As rainfall in eastern Africa becomes increasingly erratic, weather information could help farmers decide when to plant and harvest, dry crops and look out for pests and diseases that often ruin yields.

At the end of the day, Tanzanians want see their agricultural products becoming competitive at global level in terms of both quality and volume.

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