Working with Farmers in the South of Tanzania

The Southern side of Tanzania is a picturesque, laid back area that mostly relies on agriculture as its main source of income. It is within this area that I set about to work with farmers in Ruvuma Region, which is one of the southernmost provinces of Tanzania, bordering both Mozambique and Malawi via Lake Nyasa.

The major export crop from this region is Arabica Coffee from the slopes of the Mbinga hills. This is a fine and memorable aromatic coffee which I tried to flog through bitcointalk ( with little success.

After visiting with the farmers at their homes, and touring the vast coffee growing regions, it was apparent that there is a stark difference between the Macbook carrying, Tesla driving clients of the popular coffee houses in the cities with the barefoot, mud house living farmers that cultivate this drug of choice. Where do those 5 dollars per teaspoon of coffee go to? Where does the rain start beating the farmers?

From the get go, the entire supply coffee supply chain is weighted against the regular, low level of education farmer. One solution that was implemented to try to give the farmer a chance at a fair price, was coffee farmer cooperatives. These brought together farmers within a region and allowed for them to utilize the economics of scale, enabling them to invest in coffee pulping units (CPU's), which is an early stage value addition step, that allow the farmers to collect cherry coffee to process and package as parchment coffee. At this early stage of the value chain, there were apparent problems in this setup. Since the cooperatives needed a leadership structure, they became open to "elite capture", mismanagement and outright theft.

There are several examples arising from this arrangement, and one interesting example that highlights this problem happened somewhere in the villages of Mbinga rural. A group of well educated farmers decided to form their own cooperative with the objective of being better than the rest. Within their organization structure was an accountant, and of course he was given the task of managing their books of accounts. On the books, everything was shipshape, all the figures checked out and balanced.  But by and by, the rest of the group noticed that while their lives remained the same, the said accountant was growing economically at a rate they could not explain. He bought land in town, constructed rental houses, married a second wife and bought two cars, one for himself and one for the new wife.

This state of affairs was puzzling, and so the rest of the team decided to investigate the source of this new wealth. What they found out was heartbreaking, apparently the accountant had sourced a new market for their coffee at a premium, but had kept the information to himself. Thus he continued paying the market price to the group for their coffee, all the while pocketing the difference. Of course when the evidence was collected and all was accounted for, the group had to break up and all their hard work was set back. If this is what happens to a group of well educated and informed coffee farmers, imagine the kind of shenanigans that the regular, poorly educated farmer goes through!

**** To Be Continued ****

Solving coffee woes in Tanzania

Who's Smarter? The farmer or the Broker?

While studying the coffee value chain across Tanzania, it became apparent that in order to work with the farmers effectively in a manner that would allow us to create a supply channel that connected the farmer directly to the end consumer, the farmer cooperative model was best suited to such a task.

From my perch in Dodoma which is located right about the center of Tanzania,  I took off northwards to see the people at the Coffee Board headquarters, and a really nice lady there confirmed my analysis and was kind enough to connect me with the official heading the southern region of Tanzania, plus she provided me with all the necessary forms along with the attendant costs. I immediately called my contacts back in Mbinga, appraising them of the need for a registered coffee farmers cooperative to work with, and they assured me that they had one such group registered and ready to work.

So once again took off across the vast lands of Tanzania, a beautiful and scenic landscape I should say, back though Dodoma and in all haste proceeded downwards to Mbinga, armed with the proper forms and approximately 1000 USD to pay for the coffee export permit and some little extra to cover the attendant logistical requirements.

Upon arriving in Mbinga, I proceeded to contact the Coffee Board fella, who was gracious enough to make time for my humble self, and explained to him my plan. His first query was about the group, what was its name, in which village was it registered, who were its chairpersons? Upon providing that information, none of that data rang a bell. And so I called the "Chairman" of the group and requested them to meet us in town in about two hours, also informing him that we would be with the Coffee Board official. And that is where things took a turn!

While waiting for the farmers to come, the Coffee Board official proceeded to caution me that there was a possibility that the farmers may have provided me with incomplete or dishonest information considering that their group did not ping his data, and as such I should be prepared for anything. Three hours, over 10 phone calls and a sumptuous lunch of Tanzanian aromatic rice served with fish only found in the waters of Lake Nyasa, the farmers seemed not able to undertake a 30 minute drive from their base into town! Ha!

The Board official had to leave and he sympathetically  assured me that those farmers were liars and that I should be very careful. I called the farmers and remonstrated with them for wasting our time and informed them that the Coffee Board official had left. With that, the farmers promised to come by within the next hour. Of course that meant two hours, a bottle of Dodoma Wine and finally a change of location per the request of the farmers.

So we met, at a decidedly dingy and offbeat pub that looked like it could be harboring wildlife of the blood sucking sort, and every fear that the Board official had cautioned me about came to be. The farmers came with poorly made photocopies of documents purporting to be registered as a Self help group (which is exactly not a Coffee farmers' Cooperative group) and shamefacedly tried to pass them on to me. Of course it was all downhill from there on.

What was the story behind this?