Land of opportunity: Should Tanzania encourage more large-scale farming?


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Let's think together: Every Sunday the World Bank in Tanzania in collaboration with The Citizen wants to stimulate your thinking by sharing data from recent official surveys in Tanzania and ask you a few questions.

Like most developing countries, more than 80 percent of the poor in Tanzania are to be found in rural areas. Nearly all of them are active in the agriculture sector as laborers or owners of a small piece of land that they cultivate for a living. In this context, land is a vital asset for food security and survival. In parallel, global population growth, rapid urbanization, and increases in incomes have resulted in a sharp increase in demand for agricultural products worldwide, leading to an expansion of cultivated area and leading investors to go out in search of new farmland.  The global search for farmland has intensified in sub-Saharan Africa, including Tanzania. 
Tanzania appears to offer good prospects for the expansion of the size of farming operations as illustrated by the following statistics:  
- Only about 33 per cent of arable land in this country is cultivated compared to over 95 per cent for Malawi and Rwanda. Similarly, Ghana, Uganda and Ethiopia have used more than 80 per cent of their arable land.
- There is comparably limited land pressure on Tanzanian farmers since their average plot size remained constant at around 2.5 ha between 2003 and 2008.  This is in sharp contrast with Uganda where average landholding has diminished by 40 per cent largely as the result of demographic pressures.
- Approximately 10 per cent of the farmland remains unused largely because of technological constraints and lack of human and financial capacity. For instance, in 2008 only 18.6 per cent of farms used an ox, 3.1 per cent a tractor, and 1.5 per cent a thresher.
- There are already quite a few medium to large farms in Tanzania: about 20 per cent of farm households report owning more than 5 ha of land compared to only 3 and 4 per cent in India and Uganda respectively. 
These facts raise a number of questions: 
- Should the government encourage farmers to obtain larger land holdings?
- Through which channels should big farms help smallholder farmers?  Joint infrastructure? Technology transfers? Jobs?
- Is the Tanzanian government, including local authorities, equipped to negotiate and handle the needs of larger farmers?
- Will new large farms help resolve rising unemployment in rural areas and improve food security?      
Note: The statistics above are derived from the Tanzania Agricultural Sample Censuses (2002/03 and 2007/08), World Development Indicators, and a 2011 World Bank Report on Farmland. All are publicly available.


Jacques Morisset

Lead Economist and Program Leader for Cote d’Ivoire

Join the Conversation

February 22, 2013

Hi Isis,

Nice statistics but seemingly presented in a misleading way. Why should one think large farms are better than small farms and why higher cultivation rate, as measured by occupied arable land, is preferable? The linkages are not as straightforward as the text makes them to be. The discussion also reads inappropriate when the focus of many Africa-related discussions, esp. those regarding rising mobile phone use, is on empowering farmers in small farms, not industrial size farms.


Isis Gaddis
February 26, 2013


Thanks for the very good comment. This is not an advocacy for large scale farms against small ones, or that higher land cultivation is better. Rather this is about wondering whether the large tracts of unused land in Tanzania could be put to use. With 33 percent of arable land used it seems like Tanzania still has some room to use some of its remaining land. With the obsrvation that smallholder farmers have technological constraints and cannot use all the land they already have, the blog is actually asking whether there would be some space for large scale farms which could also help small ones in the process with technological transfers, infrastructure, or jobs. Cognizant of the challenges that large scale farms would bring, especially foreign ones, the blog is also wondering whether the government is equipped to properly handle them.

March 23, 2013

The government should encourage the farmers in their efforts to cultivate larger extents to resolve rising unemployment in rural areas and strengthen and improve the country's "food security"

Cultivators must be encouraged to enlarge their farms to the extent of solving the unemployment and not to go the extent of creating "labour shortage". Allowing foreigners to indulge in large-scale farming activities Will not in any way help to resolve rising unemployment in rural areas and improve food security BUT might just create the opposite.

The large-scale farms might be more mechanical intensive and large large amounts of inorganic fertilizers in the name of increasing food production.

The introduction of inorganic fertilizers followed by the use of pesticides will ONLY help to DEGRADE THE EXISTING FERTILE SOIL and create environment problems that would be harmful to the country and the world.

The Government must not be GREEDY in developing the agricultural sector. It has to be slow and steady in the interest of the country and HUMANITY.

March 11, 2014

large-scale farming might provide locals with a few jobs here and there but I fear we are missing the fact that these jobs simply turn self-sufficient small farmers who are owners of their own land into mere labourers on land they do not own anymore -- what about food security of the used-to-be self sufficient farmer who is now dependent on the big farming companies? If large scale farming should achieve all of these good things which many seem to propose, then why has there been overwhelming negatives associated with it not only to those affected (smallholder farmers) but to the economy as a whole? There is a solution to the issues which are mentioned above; food sovereignty. and this does not involve large-scale farming.

R Prus
January 01, 2014

The government has a responsibility to its people, not to "humanity" and to that end it has a responsibility to help them provide the basics of food and shelter.
On the food end of this, the presence of huge tracts of wasted land (for empty and unused land is wasted land), the extremely low levels of productivity of the farmers as measured by yields, and the continued problems with food security call for something to be done. The usual phobia against foreign land grabs needs to be reconsidered.
Are there not schemes that can be set up where a central commercial farm provides benefits to smaller farms, be that on an out-grower scheme, sharing of infrastructure (e.g. irrigation), provision of inputs, etc? As far as I know Tanzania has such a scheme in mind.
The problems in Tanzania, and anywhere, come down to capital. Capital in Tanzania is in short supply, and therefore it needs to be imported. Imported capital needs to be offered a return, for the good of both the foreign entity and the country. Continued status as hand-out receives is detrimental to those receiving it. Tanzania, and other similar countries, need to move to being a partner of foreign investors, setting friendly and mutually beneficial terms for co-operation. Agriculture is the obvious place to start because the continued status-quo will not raise employment levels nor will it address food security issues.

March 20, 2014

A study on Mozambique suggests 67 per cent of these new commercial farm operations have failed. It gave 4 reasons.
The problem seems to be failed farming whatever the proposed solution-small or large scale-to food sovereignty or food security or food independence has been. These terms are generally used at a household level but can equally be applied at a national level. It was because of the under achieving at national level by small scale producers that some governments asked these international businesses in.
One of the weaknesses of the small scale food sovereignty solution is that it fails to recognise that a person who has 2.5ha should be food sovereign and secure. Some are but too many are not. This solution does not recognise the difference in peoples in communities. It is too broad a brush. Put beside that food dependency syndrome and its contribution to lack of production and you have two major elements that resulted in the governments parcelling out land to international companies. They gave up on their own people. Now according to the above report they will need to give up on large scale also. However large scale commercial does work which is why in South Africa commercial farms are successful. Establishing commercial farms in countries unlike South Africa seems to be the problem.
Now if the government gave assistance to the proven successful small scale then it might be going down the right road.

April 12, 2014

One of the weaknesses of the small scale food sovereignty solution is that it fails to recognise that a person who has 2.5ha should be food sovereign and secure. Some are but too many are not. This solution does not recognise the difference in peoples in communities. It is too broad a brush. Put beside that food dependency syndrome and its contribution to lack of production and you have two major elements that

February 13, 2015

We should not neglect small scale farmers since most Tanzania are in rural ares depending on agriculture for food, employment and income. Rural population should have self sufficient for their food, work to their farm and sell their products for income and improvement of livelihood. This will results to development of our nation, a good example is in China and India. It is a matter of intensifying inputs, provision of subsidies, improved technology and good management. These small scale farmers will grow to medium and then some will reach large scale stage.

April 23, 2015

Instead of large scale... farming in Tanzania, owned by a small few, would it not be better for farmers in the developed world to assist Tanzanian small holding farmers-by offering their time and expertise?
Do you think that there is potential for farmers to aid farmers?
Currently as a farmer, one feels there is a large opportunity to put our knowledge to good use, by challenging ourselves in a whole new terrain. The knowledge that we could collectively bring, has potential, for the native farmers to be more than subsistence farmers, and actually make a living. The point one is trying to make is that it would be more beneficial for the families to run their own small holdings rather than having international investors buying large quantities of land for very cheap prices, when this will not actually benefit Tanzania.