Coffee is currently Tanzania’s most important export crop and has been one of the three most important since the early colonial period. While sisal was grown entirely on plantations and cotton solely by smallholders, coffee has been produced by both, though there are very few large estates left. When one comes to look at the effect which coffee production has had on the areas in which it is grown, it becomes clear that this is rather different from the effects of other peasant-produced export crops, like cotton, or cashewnuts.
In part this is because the physical environment in which coffee can be grown is different from that for cotton or cashew, in part because of factors specific to the crop. One thing which tells one a lot about the difference between them is the use of compulsion in their introduction. During and since the colonial period the use of state coercion to introduce or expand the cultivation of required crops has been a recurrent phenomenon. Apart from a very short period the early 1920’s, compulsion has almost never been used to make peasants produce coffee. On that occasion it rapidly became clear to the peasants that the crop was profitable and voluntary planting went ahead so rapidly that, under pressure from the white settlers, the authorities turned around to trying to discourage production. Cotton, by contrast, has been the object of compulsory campaigns from the first years of the present century, when they were among the factors which led to the Maji Maji rebellion, to the present. Throughout the colonial period, whenever a particular group of people was felt to be ‘lazy’, or ‘backward’, compulsory production of cotton was among the favourite means to ‘teach them a lesson’- and one which almost invariably failed. Since the early 1970’s, with declining cotton production and export proceeds, ‘compulsory minimum acreages’ of cotton and many other crops have again been used- and with similar lack of success.
This, of course, is closely related to the fact that coffee was also grown on estates and plantations, while cotton generally was not. Coffee normally gives a good enough return on land, labour and capital to attract this sort of producer, whereas early attempts to produce cotton on large farms showed clearly that it did not. In particular, its low return on labour made it unprofitable to large farms and relatively unattractive to peasants, at least where there were alternative crops. B.Y contrast, coffee not only gives higher returns on labour, but being a perennial crop it can be kept going with a minimum of labour once it has been planted and nurtured to maturity.
Coffee is a tree crop which, once planted, can be maintained for decades, though periodic pruning is required if production is to be maintained. It requires rainfall of 40″ (1,OOOmm.) and upwards if irrigation is not to be used and a climate sufficiently cool such as is usually found in East Africa only above about 1,50Om .. In short, it is best suited to cool, well-watered areas, mostly mountainous. The main coffee growing areas in Tanzania are the northern Kilimanjaro/Meru area, Bukoba/Karagwe (where for Bukoba a situation west of Lake Victoria provides a cool, rainy climate without mountains) and Rungwe/Mbozi in the southern highlands. In addition, smaller amounts of coffee are grown in the Uluguru and Usambara mountains and the highlands of Ngara, Kigoma and Ruvuma.
Even prior to the introduction of coffee, these areas had agricultural systems considerably different from those of the lowlands and drier areas. Population density tended to be much higher, in some cases because population groups had been compressed into mountain areas because of military attack from larger, better organised and more warlike groups in the plains. This in turn generated a more stable and intensive pattern of agricultural practices than the shifting cultivation, which was suited to the low population densities in the plains. The Chagga of Kilimanjaro were using irrigation before the colonial period; the Iraqw of the Mbulu highlands had systems of erosion control and even possibly fodder conservation and there are similar examples from most of the other highland areas. Perhaps most importantly of all, in many if not most cases the standard staple grains of the plains (sorghum and millets) had been replaced by bananas and plantains, which give higher yields per hectare and which are permanent. This further stabilised the pattern of landholding into something much more like private ownership than was found anywhere else in the country.
Settlers and Missionaries
But it was not only to the local inhabitants that such areas were attractive. With the coming of colonialism, cool, well watered mountain areas were especially attractive to two different categories of foreigners- the settlers and the missionaries. For a number of reasons, missionaries had a relatively greater influence in Tanganyika during the colonial period than in neighbouring Kenya. In Kenya, where the settlers were overwhelmingly dominant, a large proportion of the best coffee land was alienated to become the ‘White Highlands’, while in order to ensure a supply of cheap labour and to block off alternatives to wage labour coffee growing by Africans was largely forbidden. The growth of African coffee production in Kenya thus dates from the 1950’s, when it was grown illegally in contravention of the rules and the 1960’s, when it was finally allowed.
In Tanganyika the Germans had been less successful than expected in growing coffee on estates up to 1914 and their estates were in any case taken from them during the war of 1914-1918. After the war, Kenya and other colonies were more attractive areas for British colonisation, while the League of Nations mandate and a Governor strongly influenced by indirect rule thinking placed further limits on the alienation of land. Settler production of coffee was encouraged, did grow and did lead to pressures to limit African production, but the interim had given a chance to local producers and the restrictions were less effective, only amounting to outright prohibition in one or two cases (Mbozi District in Mbeya for example).
While missionaries have often shown themselves willing to work with the colonial authorities, their interests differ from those of the settlers. The latter were interested in limiting the possibilities for African advancement in the interests of cheap labour, thus leading them to oppose both conversion to Christianity (‘Christian boys’ were ‘cheeky’ and ‘did not know their place’ a widely-voiced opinion when I lived in Tanganyika as a child in 1948-51) and education. The missionaries for their part were interested in converting as many as possible to Christianity and in the development of a sober, hard working peasant community with at least some educated members as a basis for its further spread. Moreover, whatever the personal inclinations of the missionaries, the institution of churches, schools, parish committees and other organised groups inevitably had some impact on the development of other organisations and institutions like cooperatives and tribal associations and exerted an enormous influence on formal education.
Clearly the development of peasant coffee production fitted well into this design, while the cool and pleasant climate of potential coffee areas together with the more settled pattern of cultivation and domicile made these areas particularly attractive to the missions.
Coffee and Education
If one compares the major coffee growing areas of Tanzania with areas in which other export or cash crops dominate, the impact of the missions becomes very clear. The three main coffee areas mentioned above contain no more than about ten per cent of the country’s population, but their peoples dominate the civil service, the professions, the churches and large-scale business (to the extent that this is controlled by Tanzanians at all). Moreover, they are particularly dominant at the higher levels. Levels of literacy and formal training are very considerably above those in the remainder of the country, in spite of an educational policy which, since 1969, has been specifically intended to reverse this bias.
Nor is it coincidental that most of the first marketing cooperatives in colonial Tanganyika were coffee cooperatives. Education is certainly not the only reason here. The crop lends itself to the development of cooperatives in some ways, notably that almost all is exported and that the price/weight ratio is high enough to allow good returns to both producer and cooperative.
It is also significant that the coffee-growing areas were much less affected by compulsory villagisation up to 1976 than others. In part, of course, this relates to settled cultivation and domicile, high population density and the unavailability of suitable sites for new settlement. But influence with and contacts in the higher levels of the bureaucracy have also been important. I worked in Bukoba in 1974/5 and during the planning of the villagisation drive there was a steady stream of senior civil servants and politicians from the area returning to visit their own villages and the administrative offices to check that no movement was intended and to show “their people” that they had solved the problem. Once again, the contrast with cotton areas where a very large proportion of the rural population was moved, in some cases more than once, is striking.
The above should not lead one to believe that coffee-growers have been free from all of the irritating and normally ineffective interventions which the government has showered upon other rural producers from the beginning of the colonial period until the present, though compulsion has been less common and when used has been aimed at changing how coffee is produced. An early example is from Ngara District, where, in contrast to the rest of the west Lake area, peasants were forced to produce arabica coffee in “pure-stand”, rather than robusta coffee interplanted with bananas. One result of this has been that coffee production in that area has never grown to a level above that of the 1930’s, when compulsion was imposed with more than usual energy.
The inter-planting versus pure-stand controversy has a long and sad history. In all of the main coffee-growing areas, most peasants grow coffee inter-planted with bananas, which considerably reduces the yield of coffee. But the reason for this is that in most cases, and especially for small peasants, there is little room to grow coffee elsewhere. Bananas as the basic staple food are by far the most important crop and, even when translated into money terms, the value of bananas from a given interplanted area invariably exceeds that of coffee. For many peasants, the issue is not whether to grow coffee pure-stand or interplanted but whether to plant coffee among the bananas or not (most do).
But the extension service, noting the negative effect of interplanting on coffee yields, and being until quite recently largely unconcerned about food crops, has made pure-stand cultivation the basis of much of its advice, notably in Bukoba District. One side-effect of this has been that most of its other advice is thereby made irrelevant to the 85% or so of all coffee producers, who lack the land and/or labour to plant pure-stand coffee. Bananas are voracious users of water and soil nutrients, while their shade and evapo-transpiration produce a micro-climate different from that elsewhere. It does not require an advanced degree in agronomy to figure out that the fertilizer, spacing, pruning and insecticide requirements of coffee which is interplanted with bananas will be different from that of pure-stand coffee.
Another series of issues relate to the type of coffee produced and the way in which it is processed. In Kilimanjaro and most of the mountain producing areas of Tanzania, the type of coffee is arabica, a plant which produces high quality mild coffee. It is usually ‘wet-processed’, a fermentation process which requires running water and produces the best coffee, normally used for blending with others. In Kilimanjaro and most other mountain areas, water is no great problem as it is available from streams originating further up the mountain.
By contrast, the coffee of Bukoba, the second largest producing area, is, and has been since before the colonial period, mainly robusta, a plant which, as the name implies, requires rather less attention and which produces a more bitter coffee. It is, however, better suited to the production of powder coffee. Almost all the coffee of this area, including a small amount of arabica, is ‘hard-processed’, left in the sun to dry, after which the outer shell is removed by crushing and scraping.
Before the development of powder coffee, the price difference between the two types of coffee was considerable, while for arabica, there is a significant price-difference between ‘wet’ and ‘bard’ processing (roughly that between Colombian and Brazilian coffee). But the development of powder coffee has tended to reduce these differentials and it is thus surprising to find that for about fifteen years from 1950, the colonial and independent governments, or rather their extension services, spent considerable time, energy and money on trying to get the hard robusta producers of Bukoba to change to mild arabica.
Apart from the fact that robusta seems to do better on the rather poor soils of Bukoba, ‘wet-processing’ presents problems in that area. Surface water tends to be available only in valley-bottom swamps and ponds at some distance and downhill from where the coffee is grown. This entirely alters the labour implications of wet-processing. In spite of almost all coffee seedlings available from official sources being for arabica over a period of upwards of a decade and in spite of numerous other forms of pressure, the vast bulk of all coffee in Bukoba and Karagwe continues to be ‘hard-processed’ robusta.
In view of the above, it is not surprising that the extension service tends to consider the coffee producers of Bukoba District more ‘backward’ and ‘resistant to change’ than those of Kilimanjaro where, in addition, far more fertiliser and insecticide are used. In the past few years, however, some doubt has been thrown even on this. Largely because of the differences in input use, the import content of Kilimanjaro coffee exported is about 30% as opposed to only 10% for robusta. It is possible that if all of the indirect costs associated with input use in Kilimanjaro were added up, the disparity would be even greater. This is certainly not to propose that no fertiliser or insecticide should be used. But it may well be that heavy subsidies have led the producers of Kilimanjaro to use too much, while a better-oriented programme for Bukoba and the remainder of the Kagera Region could increase total coffee production at lower cost.
In the long run, one would expect landlessness to be a major problem in areas with high population densities even before the colonial period. But even here the disparity in educational levels has hitherto made it easier for people from these areas to find jobs than for most Tanzanians. It is true that for the past fifteen years political power has largely been directed away from the coffee areas, at least formally, through a series of revenue and price subsidies in different sectors. Even so, they have been shielded from the most serious effects of policies like villagisation and agricultural compulsion. Currently pressures from various sources for a more single-minded concern with economic as opposed to socio-economic development seem likely to favour the coffee producing areas.