A puff of red dirt stained my foot as I jumped over the deep crevice gouged into the clay road, hurrying to keep up with the bustling form of Fatuma, my host mother. The horizon was suddenly obscured by a mass of tarpaulin sheeting and towers of tomatoes as Fatuma led me into the heart of one of many markets in Morogoro, Tanzania. Thrusting her hand into a bag of peas, Fatuma picked up a handful and said mbaazi, smiling expectantly at me before pointing to a sack of onions and saying kitunguu in explanation. She pointed again at the peas as I obediently repeated mbaazi, peas, and at the onions, kitunguu. Tomatoes, rice, potatoes, half a dried coconut, piled up in the wicker basket thumping against Fatuma’s leg. Later that evening, these ingredients would reappear, transformed into an ambrosial meal: potatoes in a flavorful red sauce, rice steeped in coconut milk, and bitter greens.
Tanzanians eat locally in part because of their largely agrarian society. Eighty percent of Tanzanians work on farms, and most of them own small plots and farm predominately for subsistence. This large agricultural base makes eating locally feasible for many inhabitants with plentiful local markets, especially in more rural areas.
My market visit with Fatuma displayed an abundance of fruits and vegetables with low prices for consumers. However, stalls displayed the same types of produce lined up side by side for long stretches at a time, illustrating the overproduction of certain foodstuffs by Tanzanian farmers. This overproduction results in plummeting prices for farmers whose attempts to produce more and more—using fertilizers, GM crops, and new technologies touted as the answer—only sink them further into debt.
In Arusha, a northern Tanzania town much larger and more urban than Morogoro, I like Frida from the moment I meet her. Dressed pragmatically in a loose tan fleece with close-cropped hair, Frida’s warm hand envelops mine as she leads me around. At the breakfast table, Frida frowns at the meager helping I’ve placed on my plate—in Tanzania, I’m always criticized for eating too little, which is funny, because I’m overweight—and dishes a generous helping for herself. The white toast on which Frida slathers vanilla-flavored butter-substitute is made by Sunkist, a local bread company, and is made entirely from grains sourced from Tanzania and processed right here in Arusha. The too-hot chai I slurp alongside my toast is Chai Bora, made from tea sourced and processed in Tanzania.
Despite its plenitude, locally processed food in cities does compete with imported processed foods, especially snacks foods by companies like Cadbury and Nestlé. This is caused in part by Tanzania’s high export rate of unprocessed goods such as wheat, rice, and beans, and high import rate of processed goods. At the same time, however, Tanzania has a higher number of local processors like Sunkist and Chai Bora that bring local farmers into the food chain. Their reach, however, is limited. While local producers have the potential to support local farmers, the fractured food chains and exploitative relationships between farmer and processor prevent farmers from reaping the true benefits of local processing.
In Tanzania I ate some of the most locally sourced meals I’ve ever had. Even most of the processed foods were sourced and processed within the country or in neighboring Kenya. Tanzania imports very few foodstuffs. Their largest food import is sugar, which is 39% of total imports. Other major imports include confectionary sugar, hard liquor, flavored water, and tobacco. Because 78% of Tanzanians are smallholder farmers, the majority of Tanzanians produce food for their own consumption and sell the surplus foods to non-farmers. However, many farmers are struggling to maintain their livelihoods as larger farms encroach on their land and profits.
I asked Frida what she thought foreigners could learn from Tanzanians about eating habits. She replied that “most Tanzanians eat local food which [is] very nutri[tious] and fresh,” and foreigners should learn to eat this way too. But this local lifestyle is in danger as larger corporate farms, Western imports, and shrinking profits threaten the livelihoods of small farmers.
I saw this firsthand when I visited a market in Arusha and quickly developed a very persistent attaché of not one but two of the many young men who hang around the market waiting for foreigners to whom to give “free tours”—tip not included, of course. Most of the foods were grown in Tanzania but the markets often failed to properly support the millions of smallholder farmers who farm Tanzania’s soil.
From farm to fork, farmers receive only a fraction of the final sale price. Much of this is due to the complicated infrastructure that links often remote and mountainous regions to large cities like Arusha. In Mgeta, a mountain town, I witnessed hundreds of smallholder farmers struggling to break even as they and all their neighbors sought to sell small mountains of the same green-podded-pea. Middlemen loaded sacks of these cheap peas into rusted vans that would be driven down the mountains and four hours further to Dar Es Salaam, one of the most concentrated urban populations in Tanzania with high demands for food. Sold on to other middlemen who sold the sacks wholesale at markets to yet another seller who broke the sacks into smaller consumer sized portions, those peas that a few days earlier sat in the dust on a mountainside in the Ologoro mountain region finally reached a table in Dar where the price may have been increased several times over the original price since that first sale in Mgeta.
Farmers continue to lose income due to rising competition, increased input costs, and long chains from field to market. This could be achieved with diversifying, scaling back on inputs, and improving irrigation techniques. It’s funny how some things are so universal: the United States’ local foodways would do well to do the same, and bring small, individual farmers back into our industrial food system.