By Rose Qamara
July should be the beginning of the high tourism season in northern Tanzania. It is a time of year when tourists flock to witness the great migration of millions of wildebeest from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, across the Mara River, and into the Maasai Mara National Park in Kenya. It should also be a season of good days for vegetable producers and traders as demand from the tourist hotels in the region increases.
However, since the first case of Covid-19 was declared in Tanzania in March 2020 and travel restrictions were imposed around the globe, the number of tourists and other travellers visiting the country has plummeted. An immediate result has been that demand for vegetables and other horticultural crops from hotels has collapsed, damaging the businesses and livelihoods of food producers, traders and vendors and creating hardship.
In this regard, Tanzania is not alone among the three countries under study in the present research project – small-scale farmers and informal food traders in Ghana and South Africa have also suffered losses as supply chains have been distorted under Covid-19. However, the Tanzanian case has presented some unique aspects, particularly in relation to the kind and extent of the economic impacts of the collapse of international tourism.
On key difference is that in Tanzania, unlike in Ghana and South Africa, no major, long-term restrictions were imposed by the government in response to the pandemic. Another is the relative importance of tourism to the Tanzanian economy, compared with the Ghanaian and South African economies, which magnified the direct and indirect effects of the massive drop in international travel when it fell by 82.7% in the first quarter of 2020.
The impacts of this reduction have been felt particularly severely in the northern part of Tanzania, where there is a concentration of business-standard and five-star hotels. Hotel managers in the region reported a significant drop in tourist arrivals. The fall in business has not only directly affected the tourism sector, it has also distorted food supply chains, including in the horticulture sector.
For example, most of the hotel managers interviewed in Arusha for the present project revealed that they had been left with no option but to reduce the amount of fresh produce they were buying given their low occupancy rates and the uncertainty that continues to prevail in the industry.
One said: “We have cut down more than 80 percent of our purchases. We used to receive our orders with pick-up cars, but nowadays we use a boda-boda (motorcycle); and most of the time we order depending on the number of customers present.”
Such cut-backs have been quite devastating given the relative importance of horticulture to the national economy. Tanzania is one of the top 20 producers of fresh vegetables in the world, with production dominated by small-scale farmers tending less than two hectares of land. At the same time, the vast majority of the produce, more than 90 percent, is traded domestically, at local markets and to tourist hotels.
The tourism industry has been important for local producers not only because of the scale of its demand but also because of its high value in terms of the quality and price of the vegetables supplied to the hotels and restaurants which service visitors. In addition, particular vegetables are grown specifically for consumption by tourists. Beetroots, for example, are not generally consumed by local people.
The main impacts of the fall in demand for fresh produce as tourism has fallen away have been experienced in the regions of Arusha and Manyara in the country’s north-east, where the good weather and fertile soil have made horticulture the primary source of livelihoods for most small and middle-scale farmers.
The dominance of horticulture has also made the region home to many fresh produce vendors. Vegetable farmers in Arusha sell their products to small, local small traders, who are mostly women. Much of the produce goes to hotels in Arusha, Monduli and Karatu, as well as those in the crucial tourist areas, including the Tarangire, and Serengeti national parks, Lake Manyara and the Ngorongoro Crater.
Traders and market supervisors in Tengeru Market, which is a key site for the fresh vegetable trade in Arusha region, revealed the extent of the disruption wrought by the pandemic on the local horticultural value chain.
As one vendor at the market explained: “Customers’ attitudes have changed. They don’t want to touch anything when they come to the market or test any fruit even if you cut it. Unlike before, it is difficult to sell, even if you have the best produce.”
The export market has also been affected since the onset of Covid-19. Many horticultural producers lost their markets in Kenya and the European Union (EU) as a result of national lockdowns and disruptions in international travel.
It was some months before exports of Tanzanian horticultural products could be renewed, in large part thanks to the concerted efforts of a number of stakeholders including the national government, the Tanzania Horticultural Association (TAHA) and Ethiopian Airlines, which agreed to transport vegetables and flowers to European countries by passenger and cargo plane.
At present, the government continues to refrain from imposing strict Covid-19 lockdown measures in an effort to avoid disrupting economic activity. The focus instead has been on encouraging people to wear masks, wash their hands often and work from home. With the support of the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare, there has also been a drive to implement a number of measures by the World Health Organisation (WHO), such as mass vaccinations.
At the same time, notwithstanding the government’s good intentions, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are widely evident. Indeed, President Samia Suluhu Hassan has acknowledged that the economy has declined in Tanzania as much as it has in countries which imposed tough restrictions.
Looking forward, the tourism sector is expected to grow, albeit slowly. However, in the meantime, horticultural producers and other actors who depend on tourism-related businesses have borne, and continue to bear, the costs of long-term negative impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.
In response, strategic policy measures and actions need to be introduced to strengthen the horticultural value chain, for example, by helping to provide the kinds of storage and packaging that are required to meet the quality standards for export – and thus expand the market for vulnerable small-scale producers and traders.
Rose Qamara is an Assistant Lecturer at Tengeru Institute of Community Development in Tanzania.
This blog has been produced with the support of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) which has funded a three-country study on “The impacts of Covid-19 responses on the political economy of African food systems”.
The research that informed this article is part of the African food systems and Covid-19 project supported by the IDRC. To learn more about this project, visit its page here: https://www.plaas.org.za/african-food-systems-and-covid-19/