Dar es Salaam: It seems the crucial issue of markets for peasant farmers in Tanzania is finally coming to the fore. It’s like a long-tormenting boil that’s now ready for lancing. Only that this is a ‘boil’ not in the medical sense of the term, but in terms of what passes for a free market economy.
But, then again, recent developments in that direction could still be the mirage that proves so illusory for ‘agricultural travellers!’ I’ll explain:
On March 19, 2010, Tanzania Premier Mizengo Pinda told a forum of researchers in agriculture, livestock and fisheries in Dar es Salaam it was past high time when the Government allowed and enabled peasant farmers to market their surplus food crops in neighbouring countries. Pinda noted that surplus harvests in, say, Rukwa Region rot for lack of markets, while cross-border trade would fetch good prices for the toiling farmers.
Poor infrastructure makes it difficult and overly expensive to ferry the food to needy regions within sprawling Tanzania. Besides, farmers are reluctant to sell their surpluses to Cooperatives on credit - and amid cheating by unscrupulous cooperative officials and scheming middlemen.
National Food Reserve Agency
Ditto for the National Food Reserve Agency (NFRA) run by the Government - and whose prices are miserly and late-a-coming! Proposals that NFRA should offer parity prices vis-a-vis those offered in neighbouring markets remain unheeded. That’s largely why, for example, NFRA is always operating below the mark, failing to deliver as a matter of course!
Surprisingly, the deputy minister for Agriculture, Mr Mathayo David, vehemently opposed Premier Pinda’s call. Speaking at the same forum, David argued that Tanzania needs the food more than neighbouring countries - and Dar must veto exports at any cost!
Where does that leave peasant farmers, Pinda, the economy and Tanzania? In a leaking canoe up a creek and without a paddle on a wet, dark night, I say!
Indeed, marketing is only one of the boils which torment agriculture in Tanzania. For decades, successive governments-in-Dar have almost mischievously dabbled in agriculture, with little success in what has always been a major sector of the economy.
The legendary Cinderella
For all practical purposes, the relevant authorities have treated agriculture with benign neglect. This has virtually reduced the sector to the status of the legendary Cinderella in terms of budgetary allocations and other supportive measures.
Look at it this way. The Government embarked upon nationalization of privately-owned and managed large-scale farming entities beginning with the 1967 Arusha Socialist Declaration. This eventually turned out to be a failed experiment in ‘African Socialism’ by the otherwise well-meaning founder of Tanzanian nationalism, President Julius Nyerere.
Thereafter, state-appointed managers proceeded with uncanny ability to screw the estates into the ground, letting them go to seed in due course of time and gross mismanagement.
In the event, the Government found itself having to subsidize the new parastatals - instead of drawing dividends and ‘growing’ the economy!
On the other hand, successive governments led small-scale farmers a merry dance. This had them - mostly indigenous peasants in rural Tanzania - socio-economically twitching in the agony of deprivation and devastation.
The Cooperative Movement
The governments did this by first ‘nationalising’ the Cooperative Movement that’d been providing sterling service to farmers beginning with the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union in the late 1920s.
The governments also set up and mollycoddled an array of crop boards, crop authorities and other free-loading parastatals. These virtual little gods unilaterally dictated terms for farmers, including crop prices and marketing, as well as the availability and prices of farming inputs.
The governments - acting through the myriad crop boards and local authorities - also imposed taxes, cesses and other levies upon the collective sweat of the brow of farmers.
Not only that. Perhaps the cruelest blow that whacked into the farming solar plexus was denial by the authorities for farmers to market their crops where they could and should for better returns. For example, they were prohibited from indulging in cross-border trade. They still’re, today!
All these officially-sanctioned iniquities - compounded by poor or inexistent economic infrastructure (including handling, storage and transport facilities) - brought confusion and desperation upon farmers. Many of them opted out of traditional crops such as coffee and cotton, going instead into horticulture: tomatoes, cardamoms, cinnamon, (cut) flowers, etc.
At the end of the day, it was the national and local economy that lost the most! Trailing behind it are farmers - both peasant/small scale and large ones. They are yet to fully benefit from measures that are truly conducive to economic participation in the sector.
And, when Premier Pinda tried to open up, a minister in his Government poured icy waters on what was clearly a badly-needed light at the end of a long dark socio-economic tunnel!
Where is the liberalized trade and free market economy Tanzania professes to practice if it still denies farmers the opportunity to sell their surplus harvests where they choose - especially when NFRA, crop authorities, the cooperatives and greedy middlemen have proved inept, crooked - or both?
* By Karl Lyimo