By Haika Kimaro
Cashew-nuts and sesame are major crops which come to mind of many people when talking about agriculture in Mtwara and Lindi regions. Many people are not aware that coconut farming is one of major undertaking by many people in the two regions. In some places, coconut farming used to outpace cashew-nuts and sesame by far in terms of income to farmers.
Coconuts can be regarded as sustainable crop as one can harvest three or even four times a year from a tree. This crop is harvested year around and the tree survives for decades.
Coconut farming thrives in Mtwara and Mtwara Mikindani municipals where annual production stands at between 600 and 800 tonnes. From this the two councils earn between Sh600,000 and Sh1 million a month from levies.
In Lindi Region, coconut is cultivated mostly in Kilwa, Lindi and Liwale districts. Data shows that in 2018/19 season, some 95,000 tonnes were harvested from 10,860 hectares but in 2019/20 production decreased to 59,429 from 10,098 hectares.
According to villagers in Ng’apa in Lindi District, they pay Sh20 per coconut they sell meaning that in 2018/19 the region may have earned an average of Sh954 million while in 2019/20 levy from coconuts should have been Sh594 million.
Coconut is majorly used to produce cooking oil while its shells are used as firewood and can be made into ornaments. Its husks can be made into various products such as ropes and baskets. Unripe coconut is famous food and drink in coastal areas.
Abdulrahman Ally, one of coconut farers from Ng’apa Village, which leads in coconut production in Lindi Region, says that his living solely depends on coconut farming.
He said in the past they used to earn handsomely from the crop but from 2021 season price of the crop has plummeted. He said in the past a coconut earned them up to Sh600 while now they can hardly negotiate Sh200 for a coconut.
“In the past prices used to drop during rainy season but in recent years even in dry season the price is not promising. We have a lot of stock of coconuts in our houses though it is now a dry season,” he says.
Another farmer from the village, Issa Laulau, says he is able to harvest 10 tonnes of coconuts every three months but major challenge is finding market for the produce. He says their major markets are in Dar es Salaam, Mbeya and Songea. He is supported by a fellow farmer, Hadija Hassan, who says she is also looking for buyers of her produce.
“Local council has imposed a Sh20 levy for every coconut we sell but they don’t help us to access markets for the crop. Worse still, if you decide to take your produce to the market you will be double charged. You pay here and you also pay at the market,” says Laulau.
He says another major challenge they face is lack of expert assistance in coconut farming. He says a lot of trees have been dying and they don’t know why and extension officers have not checked on them for long time.
“We would also appreciate if a coconut processing factory would be built in our area. This would make a reliable market for our crop,” he adds.
Another villager, Omari Abdallah, notes that for production to increase a farmer invests a lot in tendering for the crop and when the price goes down it is the farmer who surfers.
“If you do not till your coconut farm properly production will go down. Because we earn less and less most of us find it hard to take proper care of our farms and as a result, we will start to experience a drop in production soon,” he recounts asking the government to look for investors who will assure them of reliable market.
Recounting advantages of the crop, Lind Regional Agricultural officer Hadija Bakiri says coconuts produced in the region are used to make cooking oil. In the past farers used to dry the coconut and sell it abroad. She also noted that coconut tree is also used to make timber which is a bit expensive.
“Coconut leaves are also used as roofing and fencing materials. Baskets and local hats can also be made from coconut leaves,” she says.
Ms Bakiri says of late the crop has been experiencing a number of challenges including emergence of diseases which attacks the coconut trees such as lethal yellow disease, lack of reliable markets, price fluctuations and lack of programmes to replace aged trees and those which die of diseases.
“But our research institutes are yet to develop coconut varieties which can thrive under the current conditions. We also lack factories to process the crop and unavailability of extension officers something which leaves a lot of farmers without assistance in their activities,” she says.
Amani Rusake from Economy and Production Department in Mtwara Regional Commissioner Office, says the development of crop also suffers from lack coordination something which has led to lack of reliable data needed to chart out a way forward.
“Coconut is different from other crops as every farmer harvest at his own time, there is no common harvest season like other crops. This makes it hard to coordinate the development of the crop.
He says efforts to engage farmers to see what should be done to improve the crop have not succeeded. He says at one time they contacted Malaysia envoy in the country who said his country can but coconuts from Mtwara but nothing else developed from the engagement.
“From what we were told by the embassy we were waiting for the Foreign Affairs and East African Cooperation ministry to direct us on what to do next. We were ready to mobilise farmers to service this big market. But we are still waiting,” says Rusake.
Furahini Hiza from Tanzania Agricultural Research Institute (TARI) in Mikocheni, Dar es Salaam, admits that coconut is one of the most important crops in the country as it is the mainstay of many small farmers notably in coastal areas.
He says data shows that annual production in the country is 546,302 tonnes and research conducted by their centre charged with supervising development of the crop shows that a tree can produce 45 nuts annually on average.
Hiza notes that a total of 265,000 hectares in the country including Zanzibar are under coconut farming.
Apart from coastal areas, coconut farming is also practices in KigomaRegion and Kyela District in Mbeya Region and some parts of Lake Victoria shores.
Hiza says coconut is one of the most important crops in the country and abroad and it has potential of improving economy of individual farmers as well as national economy through investments in processing facilities which would propel export of coconut products.