From relative riches to rags

By: Mnaku Mbani

YIELDS DROPPING: Smallholder tea farmers in Tanzania are now struggling to earn a living.Picture: EPA

Between 1960 and 1969, Nicholaus Sevenza Wela, 81, a resident of Ikang’ata village, Lupembe division in Njombe region, on the northern Highlands of Tanzania, was employed by British-owned Williamson Tea Company.

Being employed by a foreign-owned company in those days, especially the British, was a privilege. Many villagers considered Sevenza and other employees of the factory as superiors.

“Life was easy as far as you had cash in your pocket. The company paid salaries timely and sometimes we had to be given bonuses, if price goes well in the world market (sic),” Sevenza told African Independent.

As a tea picker, Sevenza was paid 90 Tanzanian shillings (then about $15) a month. It was enough to buy food, send his children to school, support his extended family, buy clothes, entertainment, medical services and any other basic needs.

Sevenza also farmed other food crops on his small farm, to supplement his income.

He said they used to work eight hours a day at the tea factory. Work schedules were divided into three shifts a day.

“You cannot compare life of those days and today. Things have changed and living costs have now risen dramatically,” he said.

As an employee, Sevenza had enough cash to establish his own tea farm. There were also other tea farms owned by farmers’ co-operatives, which were established in 1960, a year before independence. The factory used to buy tea from all farms owned by co-operatives or individuals.

After working with the factory for eight years, Sevenza quit his job to manage his own small tea farm. He then started making his own fortune. He had his first harvests in 1970 and they were bumper ones.

After 20 years of struggling as a smallholder farmer, Sevenza’s life started to improve, and he managed to build his own house.

“The income we were getting from selling our tea was used for different purposes, including improving houses, and sending children to school, and the extra was for entertainment,” he said.

In the early 1990s, Sevenza was nominated the best tea farmer in Njombe district and Iringa region.

The main criteria, according to Sevenza, that enabled him to scoop the award were how he managed his farm, the way in which he picked the tea leaves, and applications of other commercial farming methods. As part of the award, he was supposed to go to Malawi to observe the best Malawian tea farmers. But the trip did not materialise because Sevenza was not well informed and he had no idea what the best farmer award was because of his poor education.

He was later told that the district authority had nominated another farmer to go to Malawi. However, this did not stop him from shining. Sevenza continued to manage his farm and the following year he was again nominated the best farmer.

However, Sevenza’s story now is quite different. He is living in extreme poverty.

Tea prices have fallen dramatically and the income he gets from his small farm no longer makes him proud. He said his farm was deteriorating as he had no help, and people were no longer interested in tea.

“The land is tired and infertile. Previously we were picking up to 200kg of leaves per acre, but now the yield has fallen to less than 50kg,” he said.

He said the climate had also changed and it rained far less.

Today, 1kg of green tea leaves fetches about Tsh250 ($0.11).

Post-harvest losses are high as many processing factories have stopped operating because the tea sector was heading towards collapse. And many of the factories have their own tea estates.

Sevenza sees no hope for the future, and is now living on less than a dollar a day.

The tea sector faces significant challenges. Research has identified a clear downward cycle within smallholder tea production – factories are not getting enough green leaf throughput to operate efficiently and keep factory costs low, so they are only able to offer low prices to farmers.

As a result, Tanzania’s average yields are 40 percent lower than Kenya’s, and green-leaf throughput remains low.

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