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Bitter Coffee

Oxfam document, 16 May 2001

Coffee-farming families can no longer afford to send their children to school.

In the Kilimanjaro region of Tanzania, where 1.4 million people live, coffee is the main cash crop cultivated by small farmers. Kilimanjaro used to be one of the better-off regions in the country. Its social indicators reflect the positive impact of the coffee boom, with literacy reaching 95 per cent and a higher than average nutritional status in the rural areas. The incidence and severity of poverty are much lower than the national average.

But this success story is now under threat. Farm-gate prices have fallen by half in two years (down to 27 US cents/lb) and households repeatedly stress how the decline of the coffee economy has intensified poverty and increased vulnerability.

The coffee crisis had led to a reduction in school enrolment among coffee-farming communities. The average annual cost of sending a single child to school in the area is over US$10, and with most families having four or five children, the cash demands of education impose considerable hardship.

Tatu Museyni, a 37-year old widow, is a small coffee farmer. She lives with her six children on a farm of less than one acre in a mud hut without running water or electricity. She struggles to give an education to her children. 'Education is very important. It will help my children to have a better life. That is why I struggle so hard to find the money they need to go to school.' But this year her entire coffee crop has generated less than US$15. She had planned to send her third child, Isaiah, aged nine, to primary school, but this is no longer an option. 'He will have to stay at home because I could not get enough for the coffee. Just to keep the other two in school I will have to sell my pig.' Tatu plans to sell some of her bananas to raise cash, although she is worried that her children's nutrition will suffer. She will also try to find employment on other farms (earning about US$1 a day) as well as collect and sell grass as cattle feed.

This illustrates how falling coffee prices can have the twin effect of undermining household food security and adding to the already extreme labour burden on women. Like other women interviewed, Tatu expressed fears of being unable to meet the costs of sickness episodes, especially if any of her children fall ill with pneumonia, malaria, or diarrhoea during the rainy season.

Source: Research carried out by Maarifa and Oxfam GB in December 2000 in Kilimanjaro, taken from Maarifa (2001) 'Cost-sharing in Education: A Case Study of Education in Kilimanjaro'.