Four inspiring people I met in Tanzania

Four inspiring people I met in Tanzania

Date: 10 December 2015

Tanzania is a country at forefront of the global battle for control over our food. On one side corporations are lining up to seize control over the country’s land, seeds and soil. On the other side passionate small-scale farmers groups are strengthening their networks and deepening pre-existing knowledge in an attempt to keep control of their resources.

For this reason, I (and my colleague) spent 10 days traveling around the county with the job of collecting stories and finding out how we can offer our solidarity to the growing food sovereignty movement.

By supporting the aid initiative, New Alliance, the UK government is helping these big businesses. Our government has invested millions of aid into pushing the green revolution model of farming in Tanzania. And it is not alone. Corporations such as Yara international (the world’s largest chemical fertiliser company nobody knows of) and Syngenta (an international seed and agrochemical corporation) are committing substantial wads of cash to get a foothold in east Africa.

But our trip showed the strength of the people opposing this corporate takeover. Here are some of the inspiring people that we met:

Janet Maro – Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania

Janet can only be described as a superwoman. Combining the traditional organic cultivation methods she learnt from her mother with her studies at the University of Agriculture in Morogoro she has founded a project that should be replicated the world over. Sustainable Agriculture Tanzania is a farmer training network, training hundreds of people a week in organic techniques.  Janet and her seven facilitators visit farmer groups within 100 kilometre radius of the centre arming them with skills and knowledge to grow food in clever ways without the need for expensive chemicals. 

Janet shows us around ‘The Garden of Solidarity’ in Morogoro

Janet does not shy away from the politics surrounding food production in the country. When talking to us about the model of corporate farming being pushed on other parts of the country she told us “small-scale Tanzanian famers – are paying their hard earned money to Monsanto or to Syngenta. These are already big companies. The companies are extracting the wealth from the small-scale Tanzanian farmers and building up their empires.”

“If I had an opportunity to give a message to the UK government and other governments I would advise them to reconsider their approach and strategy – not to have big companies investing in small countries like Tanzania in the name of bringing about development at the expense of small-scale farming and bringing them in to a burden of having to buy synthetic fertiliser and seeds while creating big empires for these companies.”

Whilst we were there we visited two farmer groups. One group, 5 years on from their first trainings, were flourishing.  Because they needed less expensive chemical inputs and because they were producing higher yields their lifestyle was steadily improving. For many the increased income from selling their organic products allowed them to start constructing new homes in the village.

The other group, at the beginning of their journey, were having a lesson on how to use green manure plants to increase the fertility of the soil. Their plot, set next to a local stream, was burgeoning with healthy trial beds, full of vegetables grown using composting, mulching and other chemical free methods.

Stanslaus Nyembea – MVIWATA

Stanslaus works for the national farmer organisation in Tanzania. A member of La Via Campesina, the international peasant organisation, it represents the voices of hundreds of thousands of farmer members across the country.

MVIWATA works hard to advocate on behalf of their members as well as training them to represent themselves.

Stanslaus and myself outside their office in Morogoro

When talking about current government strategy he told us “The government is talking about food security, but food is produced and people don’t have the means and access to it. You may have food produced by big companies but people don’t have money to buy it.” He added, “Big companies like Yara want to have markets for their goods. It is really not about food security it is about controlling the market.”

MIWATA has also been closely following the seed laws in the country. Stanslaus was clear that currently these laws are benefiting multinationals and hitting small-scale farmers. He said “New seed laws are exterminating local seeds and protecting industrial seeds. They are allowing private companies to monopolise the sector”.

Mathias Mtwale – Seed farmer

We picked Mathias up from his house in the Dodoma region of Tanzania. The landscape around his farm is dry and receives a lot less rain than the Morogoro area – so farmers rely on the one short rainy season starting in December and ending in March for their livelihoods. This means that having good, reliable seeds are important to them as there is no second chance.

Mathias is a seed farmer growing ‘corporate free’ seeds which he sells to farmers in the local area. These seeds are ‘corporate free’ because they are all open pollinated varieties which allow farmers to recycle the seeds from part of their crop and use them the following year. This practice saves them from buying the same seeds year on year from agrodealers – something which can end up adding a lot to their yearly farming costs.

Mathias (second from the left) talks to farmers in Dodoma district

Seed politics is a delicate issue on the national stage. Assisted by initiatives like the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa and the New Alliance, the government is attempting to broaden the large-scale commercial seed sector in the country and encourage investment in the area. And by doing so it threatens farmers’ rights and their access to resources. Currently, the Seed Act of 2003 criminalises farmers who swap or save ‘uncertified’ seeds (a clause which they are under pressure to change), whilst the national input subsidy programme encourages farmers to use hybrid ‘corporate’ seeds alongside chemicals.

It was great to meet Mathias as an example of how farmer managed seed systems could work. And to find out why you don’t need corporations to sell and distribute seeds, all you need to do it trust the farmers and give them the infrastructure to help them.

Sabrina Nafisa Masiinjila – African Centre for Biodiversity

We met Sabrina on the 15th floor of a tower block in Dar es Salaam. She works for the African Centre for Biodiversity and focuses on Tanzanian and East African issues. ACB are members of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, the cross continent group which is challenging the push towards a green revolution. They are prominent opponents of the new wave of seed laws that have seriously threatened the rights of small-scale farmers in Tanzania. And have been a strong critical voice against the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa – the initiative that has been sponsoring the distribution of agro chemicals and commercial seeds left right and centre.

Sabrina in her office in Dar es Salaam

Sabrina’s main task is to advocate against the Tanzanian government’s current pro big business seed policies which she does through a mix of research, lobbying and network building. And they have some large vested interests to compete with. She often sees corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta behind the scenes influencing policies. The Tanzanian ministry of agriculture have been working closely with these corporations through AGRA – which the corporations are using as a medium to push their influence.

Small-scale farmers are facing a triple wave of change that threatens their control over seeds and jeopardises their livelihoods. Under the current seed law, they face being criminalised if they sell ‘uncertified’ seeds. This means farmers are now restricted from selling their own traditional varieties (ones which they know work) because of the perceived superiority of ‘improved’ commercial seeds.  Secondly, intellectual property rights laws are restricting farmers’ freedom to save and use seeds that have been patented as ‘commerical’ by seed companies (even though some of these seeds have been stolen through biopiracy). And thirdly, a well-funded flood of research grants, start-up funding and subsidies have opened up the distribution of commercial seeds in all parts of the country. Initiatives, most notably the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (who are one of the main funders of this) are paving the way for the corporate takeover of seeds.  These coordinated waves are acting to displace the current farmer managed seed system with a corporate supply chain whereby farmers buy seeds from their local agro dealer. Knowledge and skills around seed saving will be lost and the seed diversity will be threatened.

It was great to see that this corporate threat is not going unchallenged. And the work of organisations like ACB is really important in building the movement for food sovereignty in Tanzania.