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Country profile - Tanzania


From the spice groves and palm-fringed beaches of Zanzibar to the great plains of the Serengeti and the snow-capped peak of Kilimanjaro, Tanzania can not only claim the greatest variation in altitude on the continent, but also some of its most exotic locations. But despite the richness of culture, landscape and wildlife, Tanzania remains one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and faces a serious environmental crisis. With the best rangelands increasingly cultivated to feed a population that has tripled in the last forty years, Tanzania's vast herds of zebu cattle are being forced onto marginal land that is over-grazed to the point of becoming desert. Traditional cattle owners are unwilling to reduce their herd sizes, which for them are the equivalent of life-savings, pension and children's inheritance, and their way of life is threatened by imported concepts of land ownership, as well as pressure from their government to give up their nomadic existence and 'settle down'.


When Tanzania gained independence in 1967, agriculture was at the centre of the country's development plans, on the basis of the 'Ujamaa' communal land ownership system. However, support for independence movements in other countries stretched Tanzania's financial reserves, and worse was to come. In the late 1970s global commodity prices began falling, and over the last 30 years approximately 85% of the real value of Tanzanian agricultural exports per capita has been lost, from an average US$64 in 1966-9 to $9 in 1992-6. Despite this, agriculture continues to contribute around 80% of export earnings, and most industry in the country is also linked to the agricultural sector, whether producing farm inputs such as fertilizer and farm tools, or processing agricultural products: cigarettes, canned meats, beer and pyrethrum.

Crop patterns

Most Tanzanian farmers are smallholders; few families cultivate more than 2 hectares, and even those who have access to more land struggle to benefit from it, lacking all but the most basic hand held tools. Only around 20% of farmers make use of animal traction for ploughing. In terms of crops, maize dominates much of the country, particularly the highlands in north and south. The lush tropical coastal belt, always warm and humid, is dominated by cassava, with rice also grown in an area spreading westwards from Dar es Salaam. Drought resistant millet and sorghum are grown in the central plateau where temperature and rainfall are highly variable, although aside from these arid plains, rainfall is fairly well spread throughout the year, peaking between March and May, with another, shorter rainy season between November and early January.

Sisal estate near Tanga
Sisal estate near Tanga

Having such a diversity of climatic and geographical zones, it is no surprise that Tanzania's farmers grow a huge variety of fruit, vegetable and spice crops. Zanzibar, once a leading source of spices for the global market, continues to produce large amounts of cloves. Coffee, grown both on estates and by smallholders, is a major export crop, earning a mighty 17% of the country's foreign exchange, and cotton, cashew nuts and tobacco are also grown for export by smallholders. In addition to these export crops, Tanzania is impressively self-sufficient in food production, with over 90% of food consumed being 'home grown'. Yet ironically, the producers continue to suffer chronic poverty; less than 30% of people in rural areas have access to safe water, and malnutrition is reported to have doubled in the last 25 years.

Although Tanzania's rangeland resources would seem a major asset, in reality 60% of this area is infested with tsetse fly and, as a result, animals are concentrated in the arid and semi-arid centre and north of the country. An erosion in land quality has been the inevitable result of over-stocking, and grazing is not the only resource to suffer such a fate. Diminishing government support for animal health provision has left veterinary services badly needing succour. While pastoralist communities tend to attract most attention, in fact most farmers in tsetse-free areas raise both crops and livestock. Many keep cattle for milk, but production has not kept pace with population growth, and on average Tanzanians only drink half the quantity of milk drunk by their Kenyan neighbours.

Private sector solution?

Last year the government began formulating an Agricultural Sector Development Strategy, and identified the following constraints to the sector: inappropriate technology, inadequate research and extension services, over-dependence on rainfall, low utilisation of improved technologies, poor infrastructure, especially roads and market networks, lack of financial services in rural areas, limited processing capacity and technology, low and declining prices of most export commodities combined with barriers to trade in developed countries, and HIV/AIDS. Government spokespeople are happy to advocate the need for a revolution in agriculture and related rural activities, and are pushing for private sector supply of inputs, credit, information and marketing services, with a 'facilitative tax regime' the main draw. However, the private sector currently lacks the experience and resources to meet the challenge, and the ultimately any revolution in Tanzania is going to depend on the willingness or otherwise of the international donor community.

Statistical information
  • Country: Tanzania
  • Capital: Dodoma
  • Area: 945,087 sq km
  • Population: 37,187,939 (July 2002 est.)
  • Ethnic groups: Bantu African 95%, other African 4%, Asian, European, Arab 1%
  • Languages: Kiswahili, English, Arabic (in Zanzibar)
  • Population growth: 2.6% (2002 est.)
  • Urbanisation: 25%
  • GDP: $22.1billion
  • GDP per capita: $610 (purchasing power parity)(2001est.)
  • Population below poverty line: 51% (1991 est)
  • GDP composition by sector: agriculture 48%; industry 35%; services 17% (2000 est)
  • Literacy (people aged 15 and over who can read and write): total 67.8%; male 79.4%; female 56.8% (1990 est)
  • Land use: permanent pastures 40%; forests and woodland 40%; arable land 6%; permanent crops; other 13%
  • Irrigated land: 1,550 sq km
  • Agricultural products: coffee, sisal, tea, cotton, pyrethrum (insecticide made from chrysanthemums), cashew nuts, tobacco, cloves, maize, wheat, cassava, bananas, fruits, vegetables, cattle, sheep, goats
  • Major industries: primarily agricultural processing (sugar, beer, cigarettes, sisal twine), diamond and gold mining, oil refining, shoes, cement, textiles, wood products, fertilizer, salt
  • Natural resources: hydropower, tin, phosphates, iron ore, coal, diamonds, gemstones, gold, natural gas, nickel
  • Export commodities: gold, coffee, cashew nuts, manufactures, cotton, tobacco, tea, sisal
  • Major Export Partners: UK 22%, India 14.8%, Germany 9.9%, Netherlands 6.9%

Date published: May 2003


Have your say

Tanzania gained independence in 1961; in 1967 was Arusha Dec... (posted by: Joseph K.)

Tanzania is rich in minerals than Kenya and Uganda combined.... (posted by: ezekiel masek)


The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

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