Of roads (and other big changes)
I open my eyes from a brief nap as our driver glides along a brand-new and shiny highway. I need to recollect myself for a moment to understand where I am. Can it really be the Songea-Tunduru-Masasi road, which used to be one of the most treacherous transport links in Southern Tanzania? And can it be that we left Mtwara this morning at 7am to arrive in Namtumbo well before dark, during the main rainy season? In the mid-1990s, this trip used to take two to three days, if one could come through at all. Namtumbo has grown dramatically, with brand new neighborhoods sprouting from fields that used to produce only maize. New guest houses, including the one we are staying, are everywhere – offering great value in accommodation for the equivalent of around USD 10 per night, including breakfast. There is electricity in most parts of Namtumbo town, and more strikingly, many houses have solar panels. The streets are filled with motorcycles and a substantial number of cars and trucks. From this angle, Tanzania looks more like Vietnam now than the rural Tanzania I remember from twenty years ago. My academic mind checks my potentially-naïve heart: I tell myself, all of this probably does not make a difference to farmers in the small villages around the town, like Ligunga, a tiny village almost 100 Km south on the tarmac, where I will travel tomorrow.
I was analytically wrong.
The next day, we head to Ligunga, at the height of the rainy season. The last time I tried to reach the village in 2003, our car lost traction on the single lane dirt track and flipped over in a ditch, sending us back to the nearest big city, Songea – an experience I was keen to avoid repeating. The dirt road, however, is now in excellent condition, especially given that it had rained heavily the day before. Improved infrastructure and proper maintenance are part of the explanation. We arrive at the village in less than three hours, as opposed to a whole day, or not at all. In the mid-1990s, the stretch from Ligera to Ligunga was basically impassable from January to April. Today, mini-buses ply this road every day, from Songea or Namtumbo to Ligunga and then continue to Tunduru and the gemstone mines on the other side of the region. People can bring their crops to town, go to the hospital, and travel much more freely than in the past—all at relatively affordable prices. This is not just my own observation, it also emerged consistently from our respondents during interviews and focus groups in Ligunga village.
Of solar panels (and other assets)
Having returned to two villages in Morogoro last year which had been part of my PhD research in 1996, I expected to see some expansion of commercial activities in Ligunga, as well as better housing quality and local availability of pikipiki (Kiswahili for motorcycle) transport. I was also aware that changes may be less pronounced in this remote village than in peri-urban locations, such as Mlali village in Morogoro. Still, I was surprised to see how many small shops had sprung up in Ligunga, and at the number of pikipiki (both privately owned and for hire). The most obvious observation, however, was the marked improvement in quality of housing and the presence of so many solar panels on houses, even on some of those which still had a thatched roof.
In 1996, when I last visited Ligunga, most houses were built of mud or raw mud bricks, and only the richest households (by local standards) had houses made of baked bricks, with metal sheet roofs and cement floors. Now, almost all houses are built with baked bricks and have metal roofs and cement floors. Even though the electricity grid has not yet reached the village, on average half of houses have installed solar panels. Some are bigger, others are smaller – yet, night-time illumination has arrived to a village which used to be pitch-dark at night, or with only an occasional flame from a kerosene lamp. I found a similar situation in Lipaya, a second village I re-visited during this stretch of fieldwork, in Songea Rural District. Lipaya, however, is located only 15 Km from Songea town, and the trends I just highlighted are even more pronounced there.
In both locations, we conducted focus groups, talked to village leaders and elders, and re-visited some of the original households where I had interviewed people 20 years ago. Things are better now, most people say. It was ‘maisha magumu’ (hard life) then, now it’s ‘maisha bora’ (better life). I am aware of Robert Chambers’ observations on biases, and that the first people seen are always those who have the most. I am only scratching the surface on this short visit, and we will find a lot more diversity in people’s experiences as we conduct further fieldwork. Still, it is quite clear that the distribution of wealth (on the basis of assets) seems to be following the same trends I found in Morogoro a year earlier: a movement from a pyramid distribution in the 1990s (with most households stuck in the bottom tiers) to a ‘pointed egg’ currently (with a substantial proportion of households moving into the second and third highest of four or five tiers). While the categories of wealth ranking in the two Ruvuma locations differ from those in Morogoro, the overall distribution is approximately the same. Given the relative abundance of land in the two Ruvuma locations in comparison to Morogoro, less importance is placed on land ownership, and more on assets such as housing quality, solar panels, motorcycle ownership, and access to funds to purchase agricultural inputs. In both regions, the importance of off-farm activities is more relevant in peri-urban locations than in more remote ones, as one would expect. Yet, participants in focus groups and interview respondents insist that asset accumulation and housing improvements were funded mostly from crop sales. So perhaps farming is not such a poor investment after all.
Of tobacco (and other crops)
For good and bad, tobacco and maize have been the engines of the rural economy in Songea and Namtumbo districts for many decades. The fortunes and misfortunes of farmers have gone up and down with it. I documented this thoroughly in my 2002 book Farmers and Markets in Tanzania. My burning question in my visit 20 years later was: is this still the case?
The answer is: yes and no (a typical and irritating academic statement).
Maize is still the main staple crop in the region, and especially in Lipaya maize remains the bulk of cultivation both for self-consumption and sales. The landscape confirms this. Maize cultivation was promoted in the 1980s by the Tanzanian government as part of turning the Southern regions into the main food basket of the country. This attempt led to a series of crises, first because of mismanagement of centralized marketing, then as a result of market liberalization that made agricultural inputs hard to afford for farmers. It now has recovered, thanks to a recent introduction of subsidies provided by the government in the form of vouchers to purchase fertilizers, and the wide availability of hybrid seeds that allow higher yields. However, maize cultivation is not as dominant as it used to be in the 1980s and mid-1990s: rice, pigeon peas, soy beans, sunflower and sesame cultivation and sales have also become important.
The most worrying trend for farmers in Ruvuma is the current crisis in tobacco marketing. It is not the first time this happens (earlier instances took place in the 1980s and late 1990s), but the extent of the crisis now is far more accentuated. Fire-cured tobacco has long been the engine of the rural economy in Ruvuma. It also led to deforestation and to health problems for farmers (not so much from smoking, but from the smoke produced in the curing process, and from nicotine rub-off from leaves at the time of harvesting). For more than a decade, from the late 1990s to the early 2010s, export companies were allowed by the Tanzanian government to supply primary cooperative societies with inputs on credit, seedlings, and private extension advice – recovering the credit at the time of tobacco sales. Each company had an exclusive agreement with a cooperative society, so that side-selling of tobacco by farmers to other companies (to avoid repaying debt) was kept under control. Production recovered dramatically.
Under political pressure, in the early 2010s this system was replaced by one where the Songea and Namtumbo Cooperative Union (SONAMCU), on behalf of primary societies, was tasked with input procurement and provision on credit. Late input delivery, problems in recovering debt, and poor management affected operations – just like when a similar system was attempted two decades ago. Banks refused to extend credit for later seasons, farmers failed to get enough inputs, and production started to fall accordingly. Tobacco exporters found it difficult to maintain operations in Ruvuma with dwindling production volumes. In 2015/16, they pulled out completely from Ruvuma region, concentrating their operations in other, higher-volume, tobacco-growing regions of Tanzania. In 2016/17, a new exporter entered the Ruvuma market on a trial basis, but will be purchasing only 250 tons, down from the heights of 5,000-7,000 tons of yesteryears. Only a few farmers are continuing with tobacco cultivation in Ligunga, none in Lipaya. Given the externalities of poor health outcomes associated with tobacco, this shift may be positive.
The ongoing process of crop diversification is essential to provide alternative livelihood paths for farmers. The cashew revival (a remarkable trend in other districts of Southern Tanzania, such as Tunduru, Masasi and Mtwara) has just started in the locations I visited. In Ligunga village, many farmers are going back to abandoned cashew plots, clearing them from overgrowth, applying sulphur, starting to prune old trees and planting new ones. Good prices and a government-run voucher system for purchasing sulphur and pumps are facilitating this process. This is promising, but it is still too early to assess whether alternative sources of crop income (cashews, oilseeds, rice) will make up for the end of tobacco. But at the very least, the tobacco crisis will alleviate pressure over deforestation and poor health related to the crop. Agriculture remains the engine for livelihood improvements in Ruvuma region, but the kinds of agriculture and the processes of making it profitable are changing.
Stefano Ponte is Professor of International Political Economy in the Department of Business and Politics, Copenhagen Business School. He is interested in transnational economic and environmental governance, with focus on overlaps and tensions between private governance and public regulation. He analyzes governance dynamics and economic and environmental upgrading trajectories in global value chains — especially in Africa. He is particularly interested in how sustainability standards, labels and certifications shape agro-food value chains, and in how different forms of partnerships affect sustainability outcomes.
Long-term Livelihood Change in Tanzania is a project coordinated by Prof. Dan Brockington at the Sheffield Institute for International Development, and funded by the DFID-ESRC Growth Research Programme (DEGRP) (2015-17). Under this project, a dozen scholars who carried out fieldwork-based research in Tanzania in the 1990s are conducting re-studies of the same domestic units, and of relative wealth changes in the wider communities in which the domestic units are situated.