Tanzania’s poses a typical but urgent development question. It has enjoyed growing national economic prosperity in recent years, but how much of that has reached its rural areas where most poor people are? A common concern is that economic growth is urban centred, or restricted to sectors which employ relatively few people (such as large-scale resource extraction). Most people, in agricultural economies do not benefit from these changes.

If ever there was an archetypal place to answer this question, it would be the remote village of Mtowisa, in Rukwa region (southwest Tanzania), where I lived for almost a year between 1999 and 2000. This was a village that felt far from anywhere (an 8 hour walk off the dirt road), where most people were small-scale farmers, cultivating 2 acres or so. Only 20% of families owned cattle and then but small herds. Most lived in simple grass-roofed houses. Despite fertile soils, abundant lands, reasonably reliable rains, the nearby Lake Rukwa full of fish and grasslands with low tick burdens most people were poor. They did not have the means to cultivate much land, and could not earn good prices for their produce. Mtowisa, in 2000, had not really been touched by 10 years of economic growth that had already occurred in Tanzania – how has it fared in the 16 years of strong economic growth between 2000 and now?

The scenery near Mtowisa


I revisited Mtowisa in 2016 as part of a larger research project exploring long term change in rural areas. At first sight the changes to the village appeared remarkable. Transport to the place is much improved with year round bus-services. The village centre was transformed. I had known it as a sleepy place with one major shop and a small hospital, where cars came infrequently, and motorbikes were rare. Now there were numerous shops, nearly 20 motor cycle taxis, several phone shops, the health centre has an operating theatre and there were lots of solar powered lights (and stereos, making the place a much louder one at night). There is a large phone tower in the village (since 2008). Numerous pigs roamed the streets, these had also been unusual in 2000. The small irrigation furrows which supplemented rice farming in the wet season were now also used in the dry season to cultivate tomatoes, cabbage and onions. There was also an abundance of metal-roved homes, and some quite remarkably extensive new buildings, as the aerial pictures illustrate.

Figure 1: Aerial shots of Mtowisa B 2003-2013.

I have shown the unmarked pictures on the left-hand side for clarity. Circles indicate new metal roofed buildings.


But the presence of these changes, does not answer the question posed above. What matters is how this apparent wealth and new business had affected the lives of the poorer farmers of Mtowisa. To explore this I drew upon a survey of over 800 families which I had conducted in 2000. I selected 64 to revisit and see how their asset ownership had changed, and how it compared to that of a similarly aged group in 2000. Asset refers to the things that we own (radios, bikes, cows, buildings land) and can be an interesting way of tracking poverty dynamics. Assets do not capture all the important aspects of prosperity, but they matter, particularly to local definitions of wealth and poverty.

The differences can be very simply stated and are shown in the table below. Older families in Mtowisa now enjoy higher levels of prosperity, as measured in assets, than they did 16 years ago. They own more oxen, ploughs and pigs than their counterparts of an equivalent age expected to achieve in 2000.

Table 1: Key asset ownership in Mtowisa 2000 and 2016


They are wealthier because they are farming more, in particular because they are selling more cash crops, specifically sunflower seeds and sesame, with the latter providing the most substantial change. This is visible partly in the timing of investments (shown in figure 2) and in the source of cash for asset purchase (shown in figure 3). These graphs show how the families I revisited had become wealthier in terms of the assets they owned.

Figure 2: The Timing of Asset Investments 2000-2016 for 64 families (each dot represents one incident)


Figure 3: The Source of Asset Investments 2000-2016 for 64 families

graph 2

A Universal Improvement?

Altogether 66% of the sample had experienced an increase in assets in some way over the previous 16 years – but what subtler changes does this bald statistic conceal? There are two general trends to note. First, the improvement in assets is general across most wealth groups, but richer, more industrious families, have tended to be able to benefit from the cash crop returns more than families who were poorer and farming less in 2000. Second, older people, female-headed domestic units, and smaller families tended to improve their asset base less than younger, male-headed, larger units. This trend reflects changes in the lifecycle of domestic units where older people farm less, where widows also farm less, and where both tend to support fewer dependents. Nonetheless the general conclusion from these trends is that, within the constraints of age and senescence, the injection of resources that the recent cash crop boom has provided has been remarkably catholic.

Assets are but one aspect of prosperity. The families I visited, in the main, had enjoyed a recent cash injection from which they had invested in assets. But there are many other dimensions of poverty that remain untouched by this welcome change. The standards and ease of accessing health and educational services, care for the long term sick and elderly, basic measures of dignity and so on are all ignored by this survey. Nonetheless assets matter. Many of the Fipa families with whom I spoke place considerable significance on the major purchases that they will need to make in order to have a good life and provide for their children.

So does this mean that Mtowisa has benefitted now from the broader prosperity of the nation? Currently it is difficult to answer that question. My guess is that the best answer is ‘not yet’. The sesame seed price rise did not depend on road improvements. Many of the assets people have invested in (land, burned bricks, timber for roofs and oxen) can be locally sourced. Other aspects of the changes are likely to be connected to national economic change. The availability of metal roofing sheets and ploughs, and the price of some crops will reflect national change. But it is unlikely that these are well connected to the sectors (tourism and mining) which have, apparently, been driving Tanzanian economic growth in recent years. But if this has been a case of separate development it is likely that, in the future, the fortunes of this village will be tied to the country’s more powerfully than before. Agricultural activity will continue to intensify.

The changes in Mtowisa between 2000 and 2016 have been dramatic, and most of them are less than five years old. They are nothing, however, to those that are about to unfold over the next ten as this once remote village becomes increasingly integrated into the national economy.

Dan Brockington, SIID Director.

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