From rel­a­tive riches to rags

Fall­ing tea prices and cli­mate change have had a se­vere im­pact on small­holder farm­ers in Tan­za­nia

African Independent - - BUSINESS PROFILE - MNAKU MBANI

ETWEEN 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 for­eignowned 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

Bhad 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.

PIC­TURE: EPA

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

POVERTY: Tea farmer Ni­cholaus Sevenza Wela has lost all hope.

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