While a dominant share of Tanzania's labor force works the fields, low commercialization and poor access to finance hold back profits; yet assistance programs targeting small farmers are showing signs of success.

Far from a growing but still marginal urban population, the majority of Tanzanian workers are engaged in agricultural affairs. Low financial inclusion, coupled with the fragmented nature of agricultural production, means the sector remains, to some extent, subsistent and vulnerable to mother nature.

Agriculture accounts for 26% of GDP and 75% of employment, with women representing 75% of the agricultural workforce. Around 90% of the country's poor live in rural areas, while Tanzania ranks 163 out of 170 countries on the UN Development Program's Human Development Index, with one-third of Tanzanians below the basic-needs poverty line. And in a country where so many are used to living off the land, it is a cruel irony that chronic undernutrition affects four in 10 children under five across Tanzania. According to some estimates, this reality could be costing the East African nation up to 2.65% in GDP.

There are 44 million hectares of arable land in Tanzania, with 27% of that figure under cultivation. In terms of structure, up to 80% of the sector is represented by smallholdings, with just 1.5 million hectares used for medium- and large-scale farming, according to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Smallholders oversee farms of between 0.9 and 3 hectares, with 85% of land used to cultivate food crops. The sector is predominantly smallholdings; 70% of farmers rely on hand hoes and just 20% make use of animals for plowing. According to IFAD, only 0.34 million hectares are under irrigation, while 29.4 million hectares have been deemed suitable. That said, the future of farms could be wetter, with the country abundant in lakes and rivers, a fact that the government is keen to take advantage of via the National Irrigation Development Plan.

The most pressing issues holding back development in the sector is a lack of access to finance and a low commercialization rate. According to the US Government's FY 2011-2015 Multi-Year Strategy paper on Tanzania, just 9% of the population has access to formal financial services, with only 4% having received a personal loan from a bank. So without the ability to expand, subsistence remains the reality for many farmers, many of whom do not sell any produce at all—according to the 2010/11 Tanzania National Panel Survey, 26% of farmers were not connected to markets and produced only for personal consumption, with just 25% of farmers selling over half of their output. In terms of maize, one of the country's major crops, two-thirds of farmers did not sell any of their production, with just 25% of total maize output marketed at all. Elsewhere, under 10% of livestock is marketed and as many as half of farmers make no profit from the business. As well as a distinct lack of financing options, the remoteness of many farms and an undeveloped transport sector also contribute to the low rate of commercialization.

As well as maize, other major staples include sorghum, millet, rice, wheat, pulses, cassava, potatoes, bananas, and plantains. Maize is predominantly grown in the highlands in the north and south, while cassava dominates the tropical coastal belt, suitable as it is to warm and humid conditions. Rice is grown west of Dar es Salaam, while drought-resistant millet and sorghum are grown in the central plateau, where rainfall is unpredictable. The relative diversity also allows for the production of a variety of fruit, vegetables, and spice—Zanzibar is one of the world's main producers of cloves.

The top export crops are coffee, cotton, cashew nut, tobacco, sisal, pyrethrum, tea, cloves, horticultural crops, oil seeds, spices, and flowers, according to TanzaniaInvest. Progress has been particularly strong in the export of sugar, tea, and tobacco, with annual growth rates of approximately 10% in recent years. Raw materials are also fed into the country's industrial machine, and especially the production of cigarettes, canned meats, beer, and pyrethrum. A number of fertilizers and farm tools are also produced in the country.

The government, seeing the potential remaining to be unlocked, has begun to focus on infrastructure, access to finance, and issues surrounding land ownership. The authorities have also worked to provide support to private operators, farmers organizations, and NGOs and community-based organizations (CBOs), according to TanzaniaInvest, which are key to opening up more channels of credit, especially to small-scale farmers. Recent initiatives that are bearing fruit include regulations that allow farmers to sell crops to cooperatives and private traders, which in turn have boosted competition and made it easier to shift crops. The private sector's role continues to grow in the sector, taking responsibility for production and processing. Thus, the government has maintained its role in regulation and public support.


Coffee is one of Tanzania's most significant agricultural exports, and the humble bean is grown by up to 450,000 families, according to the Tanzania Coffee Board (TCB). Those families represent 90% of production, with the remainder produced by estates. And thus, indirectly, coffee provides 6% of the population with a living. The TCB was also able to announce a bumper harvest in 2013/2014, owing to favorable weather and planting conditions. Production was set to come in at over 55,000 tons for the season, with demand from traders strong. Tanzania's Arabica beans make up 70% of total production, with the remainder accounted for by the Robusta bean. Coffee is mainly grown on the slopes of Mount Kilomanjaro and Mount Meru. In September, Arabica beans were selling for $7.61 per 50 kilograms, while its Robusta cousin was selling for $16.85 per 50 kilograms. All in all, Tanzania is the fourth largest producer of coffee in Africa, behind Ethiopia, Uganda, and the Ivory Coast, with the bean first introduced to the country in 1898 by Catholic missionaries. Some 265,000 hectares are used for coffee production.

Overall, Tanzania still has much to do if its countryside is to see the kind of consolidation required to boost yields and add value. The prospects of natural gas production, and thus increased government income, can only be positive for rural regions, which hope for better connectivity and increased access to export routes. Should farmers be able to seize the initiative, there's nothing to stop this fertile land becoming a breadbasket for the region.