In Tanzania, Nature Provides Unseen Value for Farmers

Tanzanian woman carries firewood

A Tanzanian woman carries a heavy load of firewood for cooking. Cutting down trees for fuel is a major contributor to deforestation in Tanzania’s Tabora region, but farmers often have little choice. (© Benjamin Drummond)

What role does the environment play in the livelihoods of African farmers?

Consider this example, drawing from data collected and aggregated by our Vital Signs pilot project in Tanzania. According to the 2010 National Panel Survey, over 70% of farmers surveyed in Tanzania’s “Southern Agricultural Growth Corridor” earned US$ 183 or less in annual household revenue from agriculture.

But farmers also get services from nature for free — protein from wild meats, nutrients from healthy soil, energy from fuelwood, etc. If the environment is degraded, farmers instead have to pay to get these services from an outside source. By adding up the yearly cost of meat from local markets, fertilizer and electricity, we found that the annual value of their household benefits from nature is greater than the amount they earn from agriculture.

Even though there are currently a number of initiatives to increase yields and farmer income in Africa, these initiatives often don’t account for the value of intact ecosystems for agricultural productivity and human well-being. The Vital Signs monitoring system — a partnership between CI, the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research South Africa — was created last year with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help address this problem.

Two weeks ago, I was able to see firsthand the close ties between nature, agriculture and human well-being in Tanzania. After traveling to Dar es Salaam for the first meeting of the Vital Signs Oversight Council — a group that includes CI’s Peter Seligmann, directors from the Earth Institute, Columbia University and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Tanzanian minister of water — I headed to Tabora with our Vital Signs monitoring system team to observe the work being done there to promote improved agricultural practices and livelihoods for farmers.

From the city of Tabora we drove out to the Mbola Millennium Village cluster — a group of six villages that are practicing a community-led approach to ending poverty, hunger and disease. There, we talked with local farmers and witnessed the deforestation of the Miombo woodland, stumbling upon stacks of fresh-cut trees that would soon be turned into charcoal.

These forests have historically provided a variety of non-timber forest products for local communities, such as fruit and honey. However, the expansion of cropland and livestock pasture — as well as a lack of sustainably grown fuelwood that has led to the use of forest trees for fuel — is taking a toll.

On our second morning in Mbola, we visited a field where maize trials were being conducted by the Tumbi Agriculture Research Institute. The idea was to determine what levels of fertilizer will lead to increased yields. Yet as we examined the corn, even the plants that had been fed the most nutrients looked stunted and weak.

corn on a farm outside Tabora, Tanzania

Maize growing on a farm outside Tabora. (© CI/photo by Sara Barbour)

When asked why this was the case, farmers were honest; soil quality is degraded after years of mismanagement, and climate change has led to reduced and erratic rainfall, so crops aren’t getting enough water.

Vital Signs seeks to help decision-makers in Africa reverse these trends by collecting integrated data on agriculture, human well-being and ecosystems and making it available to governments, communities and other stakeholders. The monitoring system will also give policymakers data-based tools to help them understand the benefits and services provided to farmers by biodiversity and natural landscapes.

Vital Signs has just completed its first year, and has held policy consultations and stakeholder workshops in Tanzania, Ghana and Ethiopia to determine local partners for data collection. This summer, field training will begin in these three countries.

The need for data and tools to demonstrate the value of nature to farmers has never been more urgent. While there have certainly been challenges and lessons learned along the way, I am glad to see that we are several steps closer to providing information that will help lead to healthy, sustainable societies that can conserve critical ecosystems while providing us with the food we need.

Sara Barbour is the senior coordinator for Vital Signs.


  1. Neil Fenwick says

    Exciting project, good work! I have developed a “sustained release” sulfur pastille based fertilizer that can be formatted to release NPK/micro inclusions in a time span of days/weeks, to over a year, where required. It is designed for sustainable agriculture with negligible nutrient loss through leaching or runoff after heavy rain -effectively providing 500% more plant uptake than conventional rapid release fertilizers. It can made in the most effective lowest cost process with supply to any volume (in the millions of tons) and provides a new paradigm in affordability and crop yield, safely. Please advise how we may contact yourselves. Regards, Neil.

  2. Leonardo Saenz says

    Sara, very useful blog – as it shows the big challenges facing this particular part of Africa in order to restore/improve the conditions to increase their ag production sustainably protecting nature at the same time. Information like the one collected by Vital sings can help us better connect the dots and to unlock the potential/value of nature to be a prominent part of the solution. Look forward to hearing more about this exciting work! Leo

  3. Maheteme says

    This is a very good reporting, giving the reader clear picture of what Vital Signs is doing on the ground in Africa.

    Keep up the good reporting.

    Maheteme Gebremedhin

  4. Tim Upham says

    Have they tried developing biofuel, manufactured out of livestock dung? It has worked in Nepal. In Nepal, it has stopped the erosion of the Himalayan Mountains. In East Africa, keeping the forests will also keep rain runoff to help replenish the rivers, thus supplying them with a steady source of freshwater.

  5. Pingback: Taking Nature’s Pulse in Tanzania’s Breadbasket | Human Nature - Conservation International Blog

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