Nyerere’s ‘ujamaa’ villages as economic development clusters

Thursday October 21 2021
JK Nyerer pic

President Julius Nyerere speaks at a past event. PHOTO | FILE

By Charles Makakala

In late 1973, when hikes in global oil prices and drought hit Tanzania’s economy, Mwalimu Nyerere gave a speech which indicated a major shift in the government’s approach to rural development. Out went attempts to develop people through education and voluntary villagisation, in came rapid villagisation through forced migration.

The outcome was one of the saddest episodes in the history of Tanzania. In one of Africa’s largest socioeconomic experiments, 8 million people were forcefully uprooted from their villages and resettled in 8,200 ujamaa villages. As a result, agricultural output – which had been growing for the two previous decades – plummeted. It would take many years for the economy to recover.

Therefore, for politicians, there is hardly a more courageous development policy – read a surefire vote loser – than to any attempt to bring Nyerere’s ujamaa villages idea back. But it is wrong to allow the bizarre implementation of ujamaa vijijini to put us off from appreciating the merits of what is otherwise a remarkably powerful economic model.

Consider Bwana Mughenyi wa Unyamikumbi, an average poultry farmer in Singida. Mughenyi is one of millions of peasants who keep between one and 15 chickens in their households, making a sector which contributes a paltry 1.8 percent to Tanzania’s GDP. Four years ago, with 74 million chickens nationwide, the government purposed to increase production to 150 million by 2022. The projection was quite sound, given that a single chicken can lay 50, 150, or even 250 eggs per year, depending on type. However, four years down the line, the numbers have inched forward to only 88 million, leaving Mughenyi and compatriots with little, if any, improvement in their livelihoods.

So, what can a Mughenyi do to turn his fortunes around? Analysis of the poultry value chain reveals many challenges that need to be overcome, from availability of day-old chicks, quality feeds, processing facilities, logistics, equipment and technologies, ultimately to markets and scale. It is quite unrealistic to expect peasants to address those challenges on their own. Thus Harvard University professor Michael Porter’s idea of economic clusters.

Porter conceived clusters as a unique model for economic development because of their potential to unleash swift growth for their communities. Clusters bring together a concentration of interrelated actors that work together in a specified geographic environment. This resulting interconnectedness enables the community to achieve dramatic results which they wouldn’t have been able to achieve working alone.

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Past mistakes aside, isn’t this what living in ujamaa villages was intended to achieve? Ujamaa villages were conceived to facilitate delivery of public services and to increase production through collectivisation and modernisation of agriculture. This is what Nyerere said: “What is being proposed here is that we in Tanzania should move from being a nation of individual peasant producers (to) a nation of ujamaa villages where people cooperate directly in small groups.”

It is impossible to explore many of our social problems without seeing collectives as the solution. That’s why thousands of Vicoba and similar groups have been created to address the issues people face communally. It’s a very strong model, and it is easy to see where Tanzania went astray in the past.

In 1946, a group of 25 men and five women, stood at the edge of the Negev Desert in Israel. The area was only wilderness, with only one tree seen on the horizon. These Jews were there to establish what is called the Hatzerim kibbutz (cluster or collective). A year later, these Jews had managed to pull a water pipe from 50 kilometres away and they got busy to transform their land. Through hard work and excellent leadership and technology, they made Hatzerim one of the richest kibbutzim in Israel.

Hatzerim is one of Israel’s many communities which were established for people to live communally. The kibbutz model is a very powerful example of how people can work together to address the challenges they face. Today, only 270 kibbutzim contribute over $10 billion a year to Israel’s economy. Imagine that!

The biggest question today is how to deal with the issues which laid waste to many ujamaa villages. The Chinese experience with the communes is informative here.

“The misguided Great Leap Forward,” writes Prof Ezra Vogel, “caused devastation throughout China.” What happened is that when peasants observed that working or not working made no difference to the outcome, “they lost any incentive to work”. But, with the ascension of Deng Xiaoping into power, households, and not the communes, became the units of production. This was achieved through contract farming, the idea that is increasingly being popularised today in Tanzania by Prof Adolf Mkenda, Minister of Agriculture in Her Excellency’s cabinet. By giving the people initiative, while living in a community, Deng managed to unleash the Chinese agricultural potential and set China on a path to economic prosperity.

It is important for Tanzanians to learn the right lessons from ujamaa madness. There is nothing wrong with collectives or cooperatives, but there is everything wrong with disregarding people’s rights.

The role of government here isn’t to force people into collectives, to dictate how they should work, what prices they should get, or where they should sell. The government is there to provide leadership, facilitation, and information. When Mughenyi and the people of Unyamikumbi appreciate what the model can do for them, they will mobilise themselves into collectives.

Finally, this model can be deployed to provide mass employment to youths, and achieve the kind of growth that is desired in some strategic sectors, such as boosting production in the poultry sub-sector.

Over to you, people