RUKWA region could easily be turned into a national bread basket. With a rain performance of between 800 and 1,200mm a year Rukwa could feed the entire nation if investors came in and accorded the sector proper attention.
Indeed, the sky is the limit for small, medium and large-scale investors that have their eyes on the agro-industry. About 90 per cent of the population in Rukwa region earns a living from agricultural activities.
Arable land covers 2,357,029 hectares or about 34 per cent of the total regional area. Unfortunately, the arable land that is under cultivation covers only 597,985 hectares. The major food crops grown in Rukwa include maize, beans, finger-millet, rice, wheat, sorghum, cassava, sweet potatoes and round potatoes.
Cash crops include sunflower, groundnuts, tobacco, coffee, cotton, sesame and soya. In the past farming season a total of 1,058,373 tonnes of food crops were harvested on 529,545 hectares of farmland.
Tobacco cultivation has been increasing in Mpanda district over the years. Some 7,800 households are involved in small-scale tobacco farming. The amount of tobacco harvested annually has nearly doubled in the last three years. The produce earned farmers close to five billion shillings a year in the past few years.
The Association of Tanzanian Tobacco Traders (ATTT) is active in promoting tobacco production and supplies inputs to farmers. It also offers extension services in the quest to come up with better production of tobacco and enhancement of quality.
The price offered to tobacco growers is normally agreed upon by stakeholders who include the Tobacco Council of Tanzania. A report presented to a recent stakeholders’ workshop shows that the region has a huge irrigation potential of 814,000 hectares out of which 68,000 hectares could be classified as “very suitable for irrigation.
The remaining portion is “marginally suitable.” Paddy and sugarcane easily thrive in irrigated land. Rukwa has a good network of rivers, most of which are perennial with fertile valleys. Sumbawanga Rural has only 250 hectares under irrigation which the potential area stands at 53,400 hectares.
Nkasi district irrigates only 80 hectares against a potential of 4,280 hectares; Mpanda has 16,747 hectares of irrigated farmland (against a potential of 99,050 hectares); and Sumbawanga Urban irrigates only 40 hectares against a potential of 1,100 hectares.
Jatropha plantation is being introduced in Rukwa to counter environmental degradation effects and to produce bio-diesel and other products such as raw materials for medicated soap. Already, a total of 24,000 have been planted with jatropha in Mpanda district.
If palm tree growing was introduced in this region it could outsmart Kigoma region in production of palm oil and even contribute significantly in production of bio-fuel. Unfortunately, the largest part of Rukwa is not accessible due to poor road infrastructure and frightening tsetse fly infestation.
There are areas where residents face shortage of land, mainly in Ufipa Plateau. There is a concentration of habitation in Sumbawanga Rural and Nkasi districts. Consequently, there is very little vacant arable land within reasonable walking distance from the villages.
Just like in many other regions in Tanzania Mainland, agriculture in Rukwa is dominated by smallscale subsistence farming. Rukwa has potential for using animal power in agricultural operations.
About 75 per cent of tillage operations is done using animal power, mostly oxen or donkeydrawn ploughs. Other operations that include weeding are done using the traditional hand hoe. Rukwa has an insignificant number of tractors and about 40,000 plough-drawing animals, mainly oxen.
The lack of better farming implements limits production of food and cash crops and hampers efforts to improve food security and reduce poverty. Farmers in the region often find it difficult to sell their produce mainly because there are only a few Strategic Grain Reserve (SGR) centres.
The few private buyers, most of whom are members of clandestine price-fixing cartels, offer farmers very low prices. The poor condition of feeder roads, regional roads and trunk roads also compound the farmers’ crop transport problem because most of the roads become virtually impassable during the wet seasons.
Poor roads have been a major limitation for increased agricultural production and development not only for Rukwa but also for the nation at large. Until now Rukwa has not been connected to other regions and districts through bituminous roads.
There are 240 kilometres of earth or loose surface roads between Sumbawanga and Mpanda where there is a railway link that connects Mpanda to Tabora. Most of the roads in Rukwa are loose, earth surface roads that limit transportation within the region and to other neighbouring regions.
And, like the situation in other regions, farmers in Rukwa lack the capital assets necessary for improved agricultural production. Small-holder farmers in Rukwa can hardly afford to hire additional labour.
Farmers find it an uphill task to purchase inputs and laboursaving equipment such as tractors and animal-drawn implements such as ploughs. Commercial banks and other financial institutions often find it risky to lend money to small-holder farmers and small-scale agri-businesses.
Bankers often charge high lending rates, currently ranging between 25 and 40 per cent mainly due to risk factors.