‘Commuter farmers’ in Tanzania’s valley of sugar and rice

The plots are used to grow rice or maize – for the outgrowers, that’s in addition to the sugarcane they grow at home, but for the other farmers, it might be their only crops except for what they grow in their gardens. Most people bring the harvested rice or maize back to their village and store it at home for household consumption and/or sale.

This phenomenon of commuter farming, or what Carolyne Nombo calls “distant farming”, is not new or exclusive to the Kilombero sugarcane area. Christina Makungu has described a similar pattern of farmers commuting between wetland farms and village homes in the lower Kilombero Valley, a situation she attributes to people being uprooted by ujamaa villagization. But it seems to have become more pronounced with the expansion of sugarcane, and especially since the privatisation of Kilombero Sugar Company in 1998.

Over time, more and more villagers have been encouraged to grow sugarcane to supply the factories. There is no minimum plot size to participate as an outgrower, and the potential rewards are high. Many farmers converted paddy fields into cane fields. Others used savings or salaries to acquire larger holdings. From 260 farmers cultivating around 1,300 acres of cane in 1965, numbers have grown to 8,000 outgrowers cultivating 15,000 hectares today. Farmland around the outgrower villagers has become scarce and expensive. The more that sugarcane has expanded, the more that paddy and maize fields have become vulnerable to fires and pests that live in the cane. So, people have had to cultivate food crops in other locations.

What became evident in the interviews is that while some villagers visit their distant farms infrequently for stays of two or three days, others are regularly travelling to do hands-on farm work, which means costly commuting or long stays away from home. Many build temporary shelters to stay on site. What makes the difference is time, money and social connections. Those who can afford it, hire tractors and labourers to cultivate their distant farms and visit just to oversee activities and arrange transport. But families with less money must do more work themselves, and with rice paddy that means several weeks or even months at a time for planting, weeding and harvesting. Some combine their own labour with hiring additional workers, perhaps balancing time demands of waged work elsewhere. One woman described the challenges she and her husband face in managing tasks on plots at three locations while she stays at home to care for a sick daughter. It is a constant juggling act with lengthy spells away for her husband and older children, but they are helped by relatives at the site of their maize field who monitor the crop and hire labourers.

One effect on poor households is children being left alone to attend school while their parents are away. Villagers said it can be hard because children can fall ill, or play truant, with no one to supervise them. Although it is not a subject discussed in our interviews, there are reports from other studies in Kilombero Valley of teenage girls in self-care arrangements becoming vulnerable to sexual abuse, or engaging in sexual activity in exchange for money.

Another farmer we spoke to bought several acres for paddy in a place called Lungongole. At first he hired someone to go and check his farm, but recently, as a result of financial struggles, he and his wife have travelled down there to do the work themselves. Before, it was easier, he said, because they could leave some money with the children, but these days it’s more difficult. “But without cultivating food crops, how are you going to survive?” he said. “If you don’t farm paddy, you have to buy food. But if sugarcane were doing well, there would be no need to grow paddy.”

A teacher at a local secondary school said that children being left home alone is a perennial problem, and it particularly affects the children of paddy farmers. There is already a potential gap between sugarcane farmers and non-sugarcane farmers in terms of the quality of education their children receive. The outgrowers try to use sugarcane income to send their children to private secondary schools. Those that can’t afford the fees for private schools – typically, paddy farmers and the smallest outgrowers – must send their children to the local public schools, which are perceived to be a lower standard. It’s an example of how commercial agriculture can exacerbate forces of social differentiation in rural society.

We visited one of the villages down the valley where farmers from the sugarcane area have bought or rented plots. No sugarcane is cultivated here – it’s too far from the factories and the soil may not be suitable – but it is a good place for growing rice. The influx of ‘northerners’ has had mixed results. Those who acquired small plots keep to themselves in an area far from the village where land was available for clearance. But there are also large-scale paddy farms with absentee landlords whose presence seems more antagonistic, particularly now that farmland is becoming scarce. If they don’t bring workers with them, many of the incomers hire local people. Clearly this is a source of employment but interviews suggest it could be inflating wages. The wealthiest also use tractors, which local farmers might hire. “The incomers have opened our eyes to the potential of renting land instead of just giving it away,” one man said. But when asked if anyone has acquired sugarcane plots up the valley, villagers said it was impossible. “No one from here goes north to get a sugarcane shamba! How would they get a shamba there?” said an elder. “It’s hard, no one dares. We don’t know anything about sugarcane farming.”

During our visit, resident paddy farmers were experiencing severe difficulties due to a fall in the price of rice. They said they knew that sugarcane farming was not without problems – otherwise why would outgrowers be acquiring plots here to grow food? – but they could also appreciate the appeal of a lump-sum payment from cane. In comparison to farmers who depend mostly on rice, the better-off sugarcane outgrowers are using their payments from Kilombero Sugar Company to effectively subsidise their paddy farms, buying land, inputs and labour. They are using the distant farms as insurance and a second income, which is important because, even though they are within a contract farming arrangement, there is no guarantee that their sugarcane will be harvested or that they will receive a good price.

Future research could investigate the land and labour implications of commuter farming, including interactions with pastoralists (farmer–pastoralist conflict is a hot topic in Tanzania), and the situation in other parts of the outgrowing area. Work by other researchers and our own fieldwork suggest that the extent and experience of commuter farming varies from village to village. At the village of Mkamba, close to the central Kilombero Sugar estates, Carolyne Nombo found that long-term distant farming was particularly common, and it seems to be because Mkamba is bordered by sugarcane plantations, greatly limiting opportunities for food crops, and most residents were in-migrants who lacked access through inheritance or family connections to what little village farmland there is.

The growth of commuter farming in Kilombero, linked to the expansion of sugarcane, shows that the outcomes of agricultural commercialisation can be far-flung and that impacts can be felt in unexpected areas, such as children’s education. As farmland becomes less easily available and households’ reliance on cash income increases, the food security implications of agricultural investments need to be carefully thought through.

In the case of Kilombero valley, where foreign investors have pledged finance support under SAGCOT (see this update by Mikael Bergius), there is an argument for measures to help farmers in the sugarcane area to convert some of their fields back to food crops. This is a development that some villagers would welcome. But would restricting the extent of sugarcane deprive smallholders of the opportunity to earn a potentially lucrative sugarcane payment?

Other interviewees would like to see investment to increase the region’s capacity for crushing cane so that the sugar business becomes more profitable and stable, and there is less need to cultivate food crops on distant plots. Either way, our study highlights the importance of farmer flexibility over the crops that they grow, and the need for external support to keep entry and exit costs low.