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Agricultural investments in Tanzania: economic opportunities or new forms of exploitation?

Many are celebrating the fact that Tanzania is welcoming private investors in the agricultural sector, but who is really benefitting from these investments and at what cost?

1222041549_cbf2c70525_o.jpgTruck transporting sugar cane. Erin Collins/Flickr. (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Since its turn towards privatisation in the 90s, Tanzania has been adhering to the dominant narrative of international institutions and its main donors by actively seeking to attract foreign direct investments (FDI). Indeed, the Tanzanian state has bought into the presiding neoliberal rationale, which contends that welcoming investors will help modernise and increase productivity in the agricultural sector, and will thereby foster socio-economic development at the local and national levels. Yet, the extent to which such agricultural investments effectively contribute to local socio-economic development remains open for debate.

The truth is that standard and depoliticised economic development indicators – such as the creation of employment, small-scale farmers’ access to credit and technology, and the overall amount of capital invested in the sector – do not offer an adequate, or comprehensive picture of the effects of these investments at the local level. Instead, these measurement tools tend to obscure the social costs of these large-scale agricultural investments, mostly borne by the most poor and vulnerable Tanzanians.

To uncover the impacts of these investments, it is crucial to more thoroughly investigate newly created employment opportunities and working conditions, and to consider their collateral impacts on locals’ access and rights to land and the political configurations of power. Based on my fieldwork in the north of Tanzania’s Kagera region from 2016 to 2017, I aim to provide a more nuanced picture of the different ways investments affect locals, who are struggling to survive in an era of economic liberalisation and elite capture.

In 2004, as a part of Tanzania’s drive towards privatisation, the Kagera Sugar estate was sold to the Tanzanian-owned Superdoll. Superdoll made substantial infrastructural investments, and managed to position Kagera Sugar as a key player in the national Tanzanian sugar industry. Kagera Sugar obtained a good reputation locally for providing employment opportunities, health services, clear water, primary school education, and infrastructural development, among other services facilitating social development. And while the company was involved in some boundary conflicts with surrounding villages, these conflicts were peacefully resolved.

In 2016, the company gave me a guided visit of its factory, plantation sites, and main buildings. My guide was eager to show me the nice houses in which qualified and managerial staff resided in and emphasised how much Kagera Sugar prioritised the well-being of its employees. After being offered a five-star meal at the company’s restaurant, I also visited the company’s hospital, primary school, and new mosque. Overall, the tour gave the impression that, beyond the aim to become competitive by improving its technology and efficiency, the company was also concerned with developing fruitful relations with the surrounding local communities by offering them good employment opportunities.

But a closer examination of the working conditions at Kagera Sugar told a very different story from the Alice-in-Wonderland picture painted by the company tour. The reality is that managerial or professional positions are very few, and most local people only have access to low-paid jobs, like cane-cutting or seeding. It also became very clear to me that, in order to access higher-paid positions – and therefore better working conditions – a diploma was not the only prerequisite: a certain degree of political connections with the company were needed as well.

Working conditions are harsh, and salaries are very low. I was told that local people can tell when someone starts working for the company because newly hired lower-rung workers “tend to slim up very quickly”.

Low-paid workers don’t live in the nice houses I encountered during my tour; they live in labour camps, which look like little slums, isolated in the middle of the plantation. Their houses are built with whatever material is available. On top of working on the sugar plantations, most employees must also cultivate their own small plot in order to eat, since the company provides its workers with lunch, but not dinner. Working conditions are harsh, and salaries are very low. I was told that local people can tell when someone starts working for the company because newly hired lower-rung workers “tend to slim up very quickly”.

During their workday, the company transports workers from one part of the plantation to another using big open trucks, similarly to how overcrowded trucks transport cattle. Not only is transport uncomfortable, but it is also a daring venture. Fights and knife attacks occur frequently during these commutes. Women are the most vulnerable: in addition to being subjected to sexual harassment, they are verbally abused and sometimes even threatened of rape. These dangerous and risky work conditions don’t add up with the rosy picture painted by the company tour. 

To make matters worse, workers don’t have employment security or insurance, which means that being sick for a couple of days could cost a worker their job. One mother succinctly summed up her daughter’s experience as a cane cutter with the words “she is suffering”. Her daughter earns TSh48,000 (US$21.42) – less than US$2 per day – every two weeks for very hard and physical work. She has no contract, no social benefits, and no employment security. And all this in addition to the perilous truck journey she must undertake every day. 

One mother succinctly summed up her daughter’s experience as a cane cutter with the words “she is suffering”.

But Kagera’s factory and plantation employees are not the only ones facing exploitative work conditions. In 2007–2008, Kagera Sugar put in place a contract farming program, otherwise termed as an outgrowers’ scheme. Outgrowers must be registered with Kaziba, the only outgrowers’ association that contracts with Kagera Sugar in the region. In theory, Kaziba is responsible for providing outgrowers with training, improved seeds, fertiliser, and services to transport and harvest sugarcane. The association is also in charge of annual negotiations with the company on the price for sugarcane.

Unfortunately, while Kaziba was initially created by farmers themselves to increase their bargaining power with the company, it seems that the association’s leaders are increasingly working for themselves, using their position with the company for personal gains. This has of course resulted in a number of problems, including a lack of transparency in negotiation processes, unfulfilled commitments to provide training and access to inputs such as improved seeds and fertiliser, and increasing membership and operations fees. Even though the outgrowers I interviewed feel that their association is letting them down, they remain powerless, and every past attempt to challenge Kaziba’s monopoly has been unsuccessful.

There are also collusion dynamics between Kaziba and SACCOS, the monopolistic microfinance institution that provides small loans to outgrowers in the region. SACCOS provides loans at very high interest rates, and does little to promote sound financial management. For instance, outgrowers are strongly encouraged by their association to contract loans for their start-up, but are almost forbidden to pay back their loan in one payment, SACCOS preferring that they pay in multiple instalments over a longer period. This institutional push towards indebtedness has put several outgrowers in a difficult financial position. Once the fees to Kaziba and the repayment of the SACCOS loan are deducted from their sales to the company, most of them are left with almost nothing. One of my informants told me that many outgrowers can’t even afford to send their children to school. The story here doesn’t match the institutional narrative that praises microcredit initiatives and contract farming schemes for empowering farmers economically.

Promises of local empowerment and socio-economic development often become new political opportunities of exploitation and accumulation for local elites and government officials.

Finally, the company and outgrowers’ increasing demand for land has fostered land scarcity in the region. In fact, this rising demand has caused prices to soar, which has in turn created adverse consequences for villagers. First, most farmers don’t have land titles and are therefore very vulnerable to land dispossession. Examples of local leaders or district authorities using their authority and positions of power to dispossess villagers from their land rights are all too common in the surrounding villages, especially since leasing village land to outgrowers is a very lucrative venture. Furthermore, the process of land titling itself has become very difficult and highly political. People who want their land surveyed and titled must pay district officials. The legality of this process, and of the costs associated to it remain intentionally ambiguous. But the fact of the matter is that most local villagers don’t have the financial resources to afford titling, which is the only available option for protecting their land rights. 

In addition to increasing land pressure and diminishing land access for the local population, the arrival of Kagera Sugar in the region has led district officials to capture the land rights formalisation process for their own material interests. Not only do they benefit financially from charging augmented fees, but they also use their power to dispossess the local population in favour of political friends and allies that may be interested in acquiring increasingly valuable land.

In sum, the arrival of this investor has induced important socio-economic changes in the region that are not fully captured by standard economic indicators. Although it is true that the company provides new direct and indirect employment opportunities – as well as infrastructure, social development, and access to capital to a certain extent – its impacts at the local level are much more complex and worth problematizing. They are deeply embedded in pre-existing differentiation dynamics, and newly created opportunities are often captured by local elites. Empirical evidence shows that promises of local empowerment and socio-economic development often become new political opportunities of exploitation and accumulation for local elites and government officials. The assumption that such investments necessarily benefit local populations should therefore be more systematically questioned.


This Guest Week week presents the results of research carried out by the team of ERC GRANT, ‘Shadows of Slavery in West Africa and Beyond (SWAB): a Historical Anthropology’ (Grant Agreement: 313737). The team has researched in Tunisia, Chad, Ghana, Madagascar, Morocco, Pakistan and Italy under the leadership of Alice Bellagamba. The team has invited Joanny Belair, Raúl Zecca Castel, Irene Peano, and Layla Zaglul Ruiz to participate in the discussion.

About the author

Joanny Bélair is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at the School of political studies, University of Ottawa. Her dissertation is titled: Land investments in Tanzania: a local perspective on the political economy of agri-food projects. As part of this research project, she conducted a nine-months field research—mostly in rural areas of Tanzania—in two specific regions, Pwani and Kagera.


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