Sustainable Agriculture in Tanzania

Earth Island News

Global Service Corps

Tanzania is a long way from California - geographically, culturally, climatically and agriculturally. This is impossible to forget as a Global Service Corps (GSC) volunteer in Tanzania. Especially when your morning commute suddenly is transformed from an apathetic twist of a car key to the determined twist of your shoulder as you struggle to hang on to the side of a packed daladala speeding up the Moshi-Nairobi Road.

GSC launched its Sustainable Agriculture Program in Arusha, Tanzania on September 24, 2001 with the assistance of Matthew Elkin and Joe Lambro, two dedicated volunteers from Lancaster, Penn. and San Francisco, respectively. Matthew and Joe have experienced first-hand how to launch an international grassroots development project. Every accomplishment thus far - including reports written, compost piles built and relationships forged - is a result of their personal hard work and effort.

Matthew and Joe spent the first few weeks learning about the needs of farmers in this region of northern Tanzania. It is critical that agricultural and environmental education efforts by groups such as GSC involve the input and participation of local farmers.

There is only one method of achieving this: Get out and go to where the farmers are! In Africa this requires an ability to navigate dusty bus stands at ridiculous hours of the morning (not to mention an ability to sleep soundly while sitting upright on a bus with chickens and goats as fellow passengers).

In their first week, GSC’s volunteers traveled to the Mbulu region of northern Tanzania to explore local farming methods with the help of the Multi-Environmental Society of Tanzania, a local organization that provided us with expert assistance and support.

We traveled first to Karatu, a village overlooking the Rift Valley. Agriculture here is rapidly becoming mechanized and chemical-intensive, as farmers seek to improve yields. The impacts of mechanized agriculture are slowly becoming apparent as the region’s fertile soil erodes and washes away, choking small rivers downstream.

Further into the countryside, we reached the Mbulu District, heartland of the Iraqw people in the Mamaisara hills. In this remote and extremely fertile region, there is little talk of intensive agriculture. Here the community places a heavy reliance on subsistence farming to feed their families with only a small profit coming from produce sales.

Through interviews with farmers and women’s groups, and by attending village committee meetings, we gained valuable insights into regional farming practices as well as the problems that face local farming communities. The main issue was a concern over the increased reliance on pesticides and chemical fertilizers and a disappointment that they don’t work effectively over the long-term. Also, an increased reliance on imported hybrid seeds was making farming more expensive than many of our acquaintances were comfortable with.

As Tanzania’s population continues to grow, so do the aspirations of its people for better standards of living. Although Tanzania is in the process of mechanizing its agricultural practices, much of the local population still relies on subsistence farming to feed their families.

The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers has increased exponentially in Tanzania in the past decade as the pests develop resistance to the chemicals. Tanzania is slipping into a frightening cycle of adding chemicals on top of chemicals just to stay one step ahead of the damage the chemicals themselves are causing.

This environmentally destructive method of farming is so capital intensive that it’s simply not a viable option for resource-poor farmers. Organic sustainable agriculture, with a focus on small-scale farms and a concern for local environmental sustainability, is one possible alternative to the current unsustainable methods. Sustainable agriculture - with less reliance on costly chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers - holds the key to the future of Tanzanian development.

GSC’s Sustainable Agriculture Program educates farmers about the biointensive method of organic farming. Biointensive farming involves deep, hand-dug garden beds that produce yields two to six times higher than mechanized agriculture, while using only small amounts of water, organic compost, energy and space. While the initial work is greater than for a traditional plot, once established, the work and input is reduced significantly over the long run.

GSC Tanzania has made excellent contacts and has begun effective collaborations with local organizations. Our two primary partners in the region are Heifer Project International of Tanzania and the Tengeru Agricultural College and Livestock Research Institute, located just outside Arusha. Both of these organizations have offered endless insight and support.

GSC is currently creating a biointensive plot at Tengeru to demonstrate biointensive organic farming technologies to local farmers and future GSC volunteers. Joe and Matthew have introduced 70 Tengeru farmers to the benefits of composting and organic farming. These farmers, having constructed compost piles in their classes, are now anxious to replicate them on their own plots at home.

Once the demonstration plot has been firmly established, it will continue to be used as a teaching site. In addition to training new farmers, GSC will assist in the creation of new biointensive plots in other communities. Since the launch of the project, farmers and community leaders have been approaching GSC with requests for assistance and training in learning to farm organically.

The biggest challenge we have faced is maintaining a focus on achieving specific goals amid surprising demand.

A future goal of GSC’s Sustainable Agriculture program will be to integrate it into GSC’s already established HIV/AIDS Education Program, also based in Arusha. With approximately 20 percent of Tanzanians infected with HIV, the magnitude of this problem is difficult to overlook.

Because the drugs used to treat HIV/AIDS are inaccessible to most Tanzanians due to high cost and limited access to healthcare, the most realistic, effective and affordable treatment for HIV/AIDS is a nutrient-rich diet to maintain immune system health. GSC will be promoting this idea through its agriculture program, helping to educate HIV/AIDS victims about the importance of proper immune system health and providing access to immune-boosting organic foods.

Our work in Tanzania is well on its way to replicating the successes of previous GSC projects, giving new tools to farmers while simultaneously addressing the crisis of HIV/AIDS in East Africa.

Molly Pulsifer was GSC’s Tanzania in-country program coordinator June-December, 2001

GSC sustainable agriculture programs of one to six months are scheduled for March, June, September and November. GSC also sponsors HIV/AIDS education programs in Tanzania. Contact GSC [300 Broadway, San Francisco, CA 94133, (415) 788-3666,,].

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