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November 28, 2010

Farming of dhal increasingly replacing cotton in Tanzanian region

Orton Kiishweko

Farmers in Tanzania's Shinyanga region want to abandon cotton farming after noticing that a kilo of dhal, (famously known in Kiswahili as 'choroko') has gone up from 900/- per kilo to 2000/- this year.

They bravely followed suit by doubling its acreage and now change seems to be sweeping across the cotton- turned-choroko farmers in Shinyanga's three districts of Bariadi, Maswa and Kishapu.

It is seemingly bringing some glimmer of light -- at least for now. It is change when more farmers promise to be gradually moving away from the cotton crop on grounds that it's paying them less.

The crop has not yet got international attention, yet is gradually but surely gaining attention of some diligent business people in the region.

"This change is both satisfying and disappointing,"says the Acting General Manager of SHIRECU, Joseph Mihangwa, hinging his opinion on the fact that cotton contributes 13 per cent of the country's traditional exports.

"It represents some hope and warning that these are tough times for our 'white gold' but some hope for farmers who may opt out for now for what is paying them more," he adds. According to him, there once was a time when a bigger part of the six Shinyanga districts would be punctuated by forests of white balls of cotton farms ready for harvest by June. But that was not the case this season.

This was a beautiful sight as much as it promised big returns for the farmers. "But things have changed so much so that we expect less than two trucks of cotton per village in a day, down from 10 trucks that used to be fetched from a village per day," says Dotto Majwala, a farmer at Mwaruhushu village in Mwamapalala, Bariadi district.

Travelling south east of Shinyanga town, aiming for Bariadi, it takes two hours and a half to enter this district known for its high cotton production.

A number of short buildings are coming up in this Bariadi centre, as if to welcome a 'stranger' coming here for the first time, 'these are the fruits of cotton in its hey days.' But you know you have reached a cotton farming area, some 10km into the rural side on seeing a series of small and large farms with white flowered plant heads that beautify the farm sides.

Yet for some, and a growing number of farmers, the beauty of the large white balls of ripe cotton plants is gradually becoming a thing of the past. Theirs is a cotton dream waning as they say, "we did not grow much this season," thus explaining the less yields they would get and have already started going down as the season opened on June 28 this year.

But among this group's plantations are also bright greenery showers expanding gardens of another 'new love' for farmers in the area, known as Choroko. "This is our new catch, with which, perhaps we can send poverty good bye," says Emmanuel Bohna, a 43 year old peasant farmer at Mwaruhushu village.

In one corner of his small compound, Bohna has, in his measure, a giant choroko plot now aged hardly 2 years.

"This one could become the mother of all crops here. I harvested over 2 tonnes of it from the same area last year," he brags, as he points across with an air of importance.

"For now, a breath of fresh air seems to be blowing our way, if this crop's price remains constant," he adds. Bohna is one of the small scale farmers of Choroko in the area. He started growing the crop at a one and a half acre plot in 2006.

In 2007, that is when his enterprise grew bigger, an encouragement his other peers took up by sparing at least half an acre to grow it, to start with. "I first grafted some seedlings and offered them to fellow farmers.

At the end of each season, some farmer would initially buy the seeds from them at between 500/- to 700/- a kilo and subsequently sell to bigger buyers," he said, adding: "Chorokos are becoming money makers and we refer to them as the new catch. Everything from it brings in money and the remainder can be used for home consumption."

In the early years, he says that when farmers were using old methods of handling their crop, the produce was not very satisfying. But today, he notes, a farmer can plant up to 1000 seeds in an acre of land and harvest between more kilogrammes per plant.

In Dar es Salaam, a kilogramme of Choroko cost as much as 2200/- in markets of Kisutu and Kariakoo in June and July. And just last year, when he harvested a tonne in only one season, he knew he was eventually on the take-off.

The fortunes, he observes, were used to scale up the construction of his modern house, a humbly imposing structure on the side of his choroko plantation whose size is expected to double next year.

At the side of the house, is three head of cattle he acquired from the 1.5m/- proceeds from season one of 2009. With a pat on his back, he chants, "With next season's proceeds, I expect to see my three children through school."

But there have been challenges. Despite having a ready market and offering a good price currently, he does not have the land to grow.

"I have to rent from people every season with 30,000/- per acre, and another challenge he has found in his farming practice and failed to overcome is, being financially able at the start of the growing season.

"At the time the growing season is starting, we hardly have anything in our savings as a family, so failure to buy seeds and pesticides is highly usually likely. This is very disorganising and disappointing. "he adds. And the plant seems to have given his small family of 6 a new lease of life.

With his legendary farming spirit, Bohna is determined to improve his farm fields as best as he can. It just goes to show that despite the difficulties farmers face in bettering their lives, that human spirit, somehow, always finds a way. "There is hope after all," adds Bohna.

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