Perceptions and vocabulary; did agriculture really fail in Tanzania?

Prof. Brian Van Arkadie

There is a widespread perception of agricultural stagnation in Tanzania. Since the early 1970’s, export crop production has performed poorly.


The poor performance of “cash” crops has been one source of the pessimistic view of agricultural performance. The gap between rural and urban incomes has widened (a virtual universal characteristic of economic growth – from the point of view of poverty reduction the rural-urban income gap is less important than the actual growth in rural incomes – in a dynamic economy fast growth is likely to be associated with both a widening urban-rural gap and growing rural incomes) and the rate of growth of rural household incomes has fallen short of what is desirable and possibly achievable.


Nevertheless, there have been profound changes and significant progress in many aspects of the rural economy, with a realistic economic response to evolving market opportunities (notably through the expansion of food crop supply to urban areas) and significant progress in living conditions. As such, it is misleading to characterize the rural economy and smallholders as inherently “backward” and unresponsive to potential opportunities (which leads to the view that there is a need for a fundamental change in the “mind-set” of small farmers).

The dismal record of agricultural exports was not evidence of the inherent lack of responsiveness of the agricultural sector to economic opportunities

The failure of so many agricultural interventions and projects by government and donors cannot be ascribed to an inherent resistance of small farmers to change. The dismal record of agricultural exports from the early 1970’s until the mid-1980’s was not evidence of the inherent lack of responsiveness of the agricultural sector to economic opportunities. In the 1960’s a number of export crops achieved rates of growth on a par with more recent achievements in South East Asia, now held up as a model. Peasant farmers were quite eager to take up new crops which could increase the value of household incomes.

Historical role of agriculture

In the colonial period, a vocabulary emerged, which has been surprisingly persistent, where agricultural output was seen as being divided between “food crops” and “cash crops”.

A corollary of the emphasis on export crops was that whereas national statistics on export crop production were quite detailed and comprehensive, data on food crop production was at best highly sketchy. Along with the lack of detail regarding non-export agricultural production, there was little systematic data on the nature and evolution of the non-agricultural rural economy.

In Asia mechanization was not a cause, but more a result of the success of the Green Revolution.

The process of innovation in Tanzanian agriculture has come mainly through the introduction of new crops and new varieties. This was most obviously the case with the colonial promotion of export crops, initially coffee, cotton and sisal, and in the 1950’s and ‘60’s cashew nuts, tobacco and smallholder tea. But in the period from roughly 1970 on, the process of change has largely been through the introduction of new food crops, the rapid rise in the production of what had been minor food crops and the introduction of new varieties and seeds for existing food crops. The spread of rice production, the rapid growth in citrus production and the commercial exploitation of other fruits, the introduction of new vegetables and of new varieties (e.g. of tomatoes) have all been part of a continuing process of agricultural change.

Frequently in discussion in Tanzania, the supposedly slow agricultural progress is attributed to the lack of mechanization (how often has one heard that the backwardness of Tanzanian agriculture is demonstrated by the continuing dependence on the hand hoe), although the essence of the Green Revolution in Asia was the introduction of improved varieties. In Asia mechanization was not a cause, but more a result of the success of the Green Revolution. In most areas of Tanzania, labour is still abundant so that labour saving innovation is still not of the essence of progress.