SEATTLE, Washington — While cotton growing and ginning is a top agricultural export industry in Tanzania, the sector has been struggling for the past 50 years. As a result, Tanzania’s half a million smallholder cotton farmers in the Lake Zone, the region southeast of Lake Victoria where most cotton is produced, remain impoverished. The poverty rate in Tanzania was 26.8 percent in 2016. Improving the Tanzanian economy, which relies on the cotton sector, is essential to further reduce the poverty rate and improving livelihoods. Two organizations, Gatsby Africa and MeTL Group, have recognized this and made growing the cotton sector in Tanzania a priority.
Two main factors have led to the stagnation in productivity in the cotton sector. One problem is a general lack of knowledge about how to best operate within the global industry; the other is a lack of cohesiveness between sector groups. Small cotton ginning operations compete with each other from year to year. This competition makes them unwilling to contract farmers for the long-term. Contracts would give the farmers the training and knowledge needed to improve practices and output.
Gatsby Africa and the Tanzania Cotton Board
Gatsby Africa, an English company that works in eastern Africa, began the Cotton Sector Development Programme (CSDP) in 2007. This program helps support the Tanzania Cotton Board (TCB), which regulates the cotton sector and works to increase contract farming in the Lake Zone. To do so, a three-part contract farming model was developed within the past few years, involving local government, farmers and ginners.
Each district helps farmers negotiate with ginners, advocating for the interests and needs of the farmers. Farmers then make arrangements to supply one ginner with cotton and, in turn, the ginners provide training and other services to the farmers. This system was pioneered by an initiative in the Geita region of Tanzania in 2014 and 2015. The success of the program in this region inspired the TCB to support such initiatives elsewhere.
Despite initial political resistance, contract farming for the cotton sector in Tanzania has gained popularity. This is partly due to the approval of President Magufuli whose endorsement has helped contract farming begin to prosper even without direct support from the Tanzania Cotton Board and Gatsby Africa’s Cotton Sector Development Programme.
CSDP has also working to increase conservation agriculture in the region. Better agricultural practices, including the correct use of pesticides and improved cotton seeds, can significantly increase annual cotton production. This increase will improve the livelihoods of individual farmers and the industry overall.
In May 2017, TCB Director General Marco Mtunga stated that the improved agricultural practices “will raise cotton output by over 60 percent in the next three years,” indicating great hope for the cotton sector in Tanzania. TCB has required all cotton farmers to use certified seeds beginning in 2019, a large part of the effort to increase cotton yields.
MeTL and the Cotton Sector
MeTL, an organization that has programs in nine African countries, has also helped improve the cotton sector in Tanzania and the livelihoods of farmers in the Lake Zone. MeTL turned five million acres of previously unused land into prosperous farmland for cotton. They strive for sustainable practices that will prevent the land from becoming overused.
Following the model of contract farming established by the TCB, MeTL creates contracts with local farmers to work this land, providing opportunities for smallholder farmers in Tanzania. Of its four textile mills, three of them are in Tanzania. The program currently benefits more than 6,000 cotton farmers.
Impact of These Efforts
These efforts to improve the cotton sector have had an impact on Tanzania’s overall economy, resulting in a higher GDP in 2017 than in previous years. This growth has helped reduce the inflation rate, benefiting impoverished Tanzanians. As noted previously, improvements to the cotton sector have also increased the ability of smallholder farmers to negotiate with ginners, providing them with more stable employment opportunities, which has helped them receive better training and specialization and overall improves their livelihoods.
Moving forward, Gatsby Africa intends to continue working with the cotton sector in Tanzania, helping to increase contract farming and improve farming practices. MeTL plans to continue their work in the nation and employ more farmers in the coming years. With commitments from the government and organizations such as these, improvements to the cotton sector will hopefully continue, playing a significant role in improving Tanzania’s economy and decreasing poverty among farmers.
– Sara Olk