Between crisis and opportunity : Livelihoods, diversification and inequality among the Meru of Tanzania

Abstract: Sustained high population growth rates are radically altering the livelihood conditions for small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. In one of the most fertile and densely settled areas of East Africa, Mount Meru in Northern Tanzania, the size of the population has increased nearly tenfold within the last century. As a consequence, the most serious problem facing farm families is shortage of land. Coupled with this constraint is a complete turn in the national policy towards the agricultural sector in the 1990s. Within short time, Tanzania has moved from state controlled to liberalized markets, a change that has brought new challenges as well as opportunities for the country's numerous smallholders. Historically, Meru households have managed the situation of land shortage rather well. The near universal adoption of coffee cultivation in the 1950s strongly contributed to improvements in food security and living standards despite very high population growth rates. So did income diversification, i.e. the partial reliance on incomes from outside farming. In the 1980s, however, the national economic recession prompted a social and livelihood crisis as markets contracted, coffee prices dropped and small business and employment opportunities dwindled. More recently, economic liberalization has produced a change into high value crops for the domestic markets and, above all, a conspicuous upsurge of opportunities for earning incomes from off-farm work, a trend that is reinforced by the proximity of Mount Meru to Arusha town, the regional capital. Caught between the compelling forces of economic adjustment and land shortage on the one hand, and the rising aspirations and opportunities brought by economic liberalisation on the other, Meru household members have turned their back on farming in favour of various kinds of off-farm employment. The quest for off-farm incomes by rural households is a phenomenon that sweeps across Africa and one that implies the shrinking of the agricultural sector versus other sectors of the economy, i.e. 'de-agrarianisation'. The consequences of 'de-agrarianisation' on food production, income distribution, poverty reduction, and the viability of small family farms, are uncertain, however. The study concludes that, in the Meru case, off-farm employment foremost serves as a means for preserving the small family farm rather than implying a full-scale exodus from agriculture. The study suggests that in spite of a rising gap in incomes between rich and poor farmers, local agriculture continues to be dominated by small family farms, which show great flexibility in adapting to shifting economic and political conditions. Economic polarisation is contained by a high rate of social mobility, income diversification strategies, and by social institutions supporting the right to land for all. Local agriculture continues to be constrained by low productivity, however, a fact that casts doubts on the current neo-liberal policies as the most efficient means of raising agricultural output and incomes in Africa's rural areas.