First of all, it is important to remember that the agro sector was in pre- and immediate post-independence years the undisputed key element of Tanzania’s economic activity, eclipsing other important sectors like mining, industry, fishing, and tourism for many years.
Older Tanzanians can recall how agriculture once contributed up to 80 per cent of the country’s total gross domestic product (GDP) and could feed the entire nation, with the hand hoe-wielding rural farmer being the star actor.
But today, those farmers are contributing just 27 per cent of national GDP - far surpassed by the services sector at 45 per cent. Moreover, agriculture seems to have become primarily an activity for the elderly, as more and more members of the young generation continue to eschew it in favour of the lure of city life.
In other words, the agro sector is fading away fast in terms of acknowledged importance to the nation’s economic sustainability.
And it is the farmers who are hurting. A typical example can be found in Mwanga District, Kilimanjaro Region, where horticultural farmers decided to reclaim the land around Lake Jipe for their activities, but now find themselves lacking a reliable market for their harvested product.
They are not the only ones. Vegetable farmers in Arusha and Manyara regions have for years now been experiencing similar problems not only in marketing their veggies, but also securing loans to expand their farms and buy seeds.
Just last year, farmers in Ruvuma, Mbeya, Rukwa, Iringa, Katavi and Tanga regions also raised their collective concerns over the same issues, with no response so far from the relevant authorities.
The situation has reached a point where visiting traders from Kenya can capitalize on the prevalent loophole to purchase the farmers’ yields at throw-away prices while supplying them with seeds at high prices, thereby seriously undermining the farmers’ efforts to eke out and sustain a decent living for themselves and their families.
So this is where we as a country need to ask ourselves what happened to the crop cooperative unions which were once the root of the agricultural sector’s success – and were in fact much stronger than Kenya’s own coop unions of the moment?
There are many ways of modernizing agriculture and make it a booming economic activity again. Whether this is done technologically or through intensified labour, adopting cooperative means of production as one way of creating efficiency and institutional capacity for farmers cannot be disregarded in a country like Tanzania where smallholder farming practices prevail.
Not only are cooperative unions literally obliged to purchase farmers’ crops, but also to supply them with good seeds, provide them with affordable loans, and even help the farmers get themselves better organized for better production.
It’s been about two decades since the government introduced contract farming on a number of crops. But this policy has not had the same kind of positive impact that the cooperative movement had on boosting farmers’ morale during the 1960s, 70s, even 80s.
Tanzania remains largely an agricultural country and there is no way it can ditch this ‘backbone’ economic activity for the vast majority of its people.
Taking that as a fact, it is all the more important that we once again embrace cooperative unions as a means through which the agro sector can be revived and re-organized for the better good of the nation’s economy as a whole.