Dan Brockington is leading an ESRC/DFID project exploring long-term livelihood change in Tanzania to revisit villages  first surveyed in the 1990s. We try and talk to the same families that were visited in the original surveys, conducting re-surveys and then sharing results and findings with community members. One of the features of this work is that we also visit these sites with the researchers who conducted the first work. Here we have re-blogged a series of entries and reflections about these revisits in which researchers consider what changes they have seen and what they might mean.

The fifth and final blog in the series is from Christine Noe, Lecturer in Human Geography  at the University of Dar es Salaam, and is one of our colleagues on this project. We worked together in Meru at the beginning of June 2016. 

The research reported here is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, the original work was undertaken by the late Rolf Larson in the mid-1990s. I am, in some ways, following in his footsteps, and how I have come to do so is a moving and difficult story. Rolf was killed in a road accident in Tanzania in 2004, on his way to revisit Meru and the sites of his original research. He had kept his data in meticulous order, however, and a chance encounter with his former colleagues has meant that I have been able to access it and use it. I am very grateful to Rolf and Göran Djurfeldt for making this possible.

The second is that, in other ways, Rolf was walking where I had trod when he did his research. Unlike most researchers in this livelihood change project, the work in Meru is return to my homeland, the place I was born and grew up. I studied at Makumira primary and secondary school, in Poli-Ndatu village where I was born, for thirteen years. Poli-Ndatu is among the nine villages that Rolf Larson studied in 1994/1998. Part of my excitement with this project is that I am so well placed to contribute to the interpretation of change in Meru due to my personal experience, the local network, language fluency and connection to the landscape.

At the same time, this is not just an intellectual excitement. It is difficult to convey the importance and meaning of coming from, and belonging to Meru. We, the Meru people are called Warwa, which means ‘the mountain climbers’. The name captures our relationship with Mount Meru. Our sense of time, direction and livelihoods rely on this beautiful but densely populated landscape. Even when there are work and life opportunities in distant towns and cities, we return home at the end of the day or year. So this is more than just a visit to a research site for me.

But, in purer research terms, there is also an important story to tell here, for Meru has a fascinating history of coffee production and a changing relationship to the coffee economy that makes it an important study site. Indeed, the reason I went to school in Meru, apart from it being the school closest to home, is that it was affordable. For many years school fees was subsidized for Meru students whose parents were members of coffee cooperative societies. My childhood is indelibly inscribed (perhaps stained might be the best word given this is coffee) by the long hours of labour I undertook tending coffee bushes and washing coffee beans in cold mountain streams before dawn.

However, following the continued decline of coffee prices, cooperative societies lost almost 50% of market share to private buyers by 1996. This caused the collapse of two important farmer support systems; subsidies/credit for coffee pesticides and fertilizers and, second, the Meru Education and Social Development Trust Fund (MESODET). What followed was a full swing exposure of Meru to competitive private markets – for both farm producers and children’s education. I left for the University of Dar es Salaam in 1997 when Rolf’s fieldwork for his original research was underway. At that time the impacts of privatization on land use and livelihood strategies had not been obvious.

Our recent visit to the original study villages recorded some changes that relate largely to the fall of coffee economy. However, there is an interesting twist. My expectation had been that the fall of coffee would cause increase in poverty. To my surprise, it gave rise to new opportunities. I mention some of these opportunities in the paragraphs below.

What changes?

The initial fieldwork started this June with re-survey of forty original households Kyuta sub-village of Mulala. Observational visits to six of the nine original villages were made prior to the re-survey. The visited villages are Poli, Singisi, Songoro, Mulala, Nshupu and Nkoaranga. These villages are closely located together making it relatively easy to visit them all in one day. This visit was intended to refresh my memory of the area and to capture any notable changes. Whereas the analysis of the new household data is not yet done, no significant changes were observed on farm-based livelihood activities especially for the middle zone villages. Small family plots are still dominantly used for mixed crops (coffee and bananas, maize and beans/sweet potatoes or elephant grasses, bananas for sale and fodder). Some of the existing differences between villages are particularly visible as one goes up the mountain. Overall, the major notable changes are;

1. The replacement of coffee trees with other crops (fodder and bananas in lower villages and potatoes/carrots on the mountain). This has happened across the villages but with some exceptions for Mulala-Kyuta where farmers have formed an organization to resuscitate coffee production. This shows how farmers respond to the fall of coffee economy but more importantly to the growing land scarcity through farm intensification (Rolf’s major research objective).

2. Potatoes and carrots emerging as major cash crops especially for high altitude village of Songoro and Mulala that border the Meru forest reserve[1]. This is an interesting empirical issue that could explain most other changes in household assets. Before conducting interviews with Kyuta households, the assumption was that people had worse economic situations due to the decline of coffee. However, potatoes and carrots emerged as new cash crops that are more productive per unit area. While the use of the same size of land for coffee would mean one harvest per year, two harvests are possible for potatoes/carrots (between April and July) and maize for food (between August and January). Income from potatoes and carrots is invested in housing, business and education.

3. Locally organized micro-finance (vikoba) is emerging as an important source of capital through low interest loans that are used to invest in children’s’ education,  modern seeds and fertilizers as well as in small to medium businesses. Whereas this has been cushioning the loss of income from coffee, vikoba have become a motivation to work harder amongst its members across different age groups.

4. Increase of non-farm activities (business in motor cycles, cars and rented houses/lodges). The growth of these activities is more observable in the middle zone villages that are close to the Moshi-Arusha road (both sizeable towns to which Meru is close). Apart from the influence of this road, there are also other conditions such as:

a. The establishment of three Universities in Meru area – the Nelson Mandela African Institute of Science and Technology, Arusha University and Makumira University. These institutions have increased demand for food and accommodation as well as transportation for both students and lecturers. This has made the nearby villages of Poli-Ndatu, Singisi, Akheri and Nshupu become more urbanized.

b. Tengeru market is playing an important role of connecting Meru farmers with buyers from Arusha and the Mererani Tanzanite mining towns.

5. Increase of ownership and use of mobile phones for business-related communications and money transfers

6. Improved quality of housing – with no single grass thatched house observed across the villages

 Above: Bananas in Kyuta waiting for transportation to the market (wholesalers) 


Above: Banana retailers in Tengeru market 

 Above: A typical example of an improved homestead (most likely from the poorest group of 1994). Picture taken by Christine Noe, Kyuta, 8/6/2016

Coffee break?

Coffee breaks are almost an institutionalized phenomenon in official and business circles. But ‘coffee break’ is used here to describe how Meru farmers have dealt with coffee price fluctuations by neglecting or over-pruning their trees to cut down the costs of their maintenance. This is a sign of desperation among farmers who have prospects for future improvements in coffee prices but at the moment wishing to put their land under other uses. The plates below demonstrate how this happens. Whereas coffee break is practiced in almost all the villages, it is more prominent in mountain villages of Songoro and Mulala, which have high potentials for incomes from potatoes and carrots. However, more coffee trees have been uprooted to signify a permanent decision to use land for other profitable uses.

The fall of coffee economy is not unique for Meru area. Most coffee growing regions of Kilimanjaro, Kagera, Ruvuma and Mbeya have faced similar challenges of low returns from coffee and subsequent lack of subsidies for pesticides and fertilizers. Farmer’s responses to the market failures are interesting to us because they differentiate how households have changed their livelihood strategies and continue to build their assert portfolios. It is against this background that Kyuta villagers suggest that taking a coffee break is healthy; it allows better use of land, which is why they have managed to come out of poverty. While this view is popular among the youths, the old generation still hesitates to replace coffee with potatoes and carrots. In their view, ‘the youths of today have changed just like the coffee market. They want quick money’. Certainly it took a long time for me and my siblings to persuade my father to uproot his coffee bushes

But this change also has a fascinating consequence for local views about wealth and assets. Land size and number of coffee trees are no longer determinants of wealth. One can have acres of land, under coffee, and remain poor. What matters instead is the effort and initiative people are prepared to take with their land. Therefore local definitions of wealth are, remarkably, not distinguished by the amount of land that people own, but rather by the hard work and entrepreneurship they display. It is not land per se so much as land productivity per unit area because it improves household ability to invest in education, business, housing etc.

All this poses interesting challenges for a project exploring changes to assets! It also means that our discussion with people as to why and how their fortunes have changed will become all the more important. Meru will prove a fascinating case study about how rural life, close to urban areas, is changing.

 Above: Farmer’s coffee break. Pictures taken by Christine Noe, Songoro village, 3/6/2016

[1] These were also some of the high coffee producing areas until mid 1990s

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