Ambrose Martin Kimati

A profile of a smallholder coffee farmer in Tanzania


Ambrose is a member of the Kibosho Central Cooperative Society, which is one of 63 cooperatives that make up the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU) in Tanzania. The price of coffee has sunk to all-time lows for several years and many farmers here have replaced their coffee bushes with maize and other crops that they can eat, or sell locally. Although KNCU is registered to supply the Fairtrade market the volumes are not significant enough to compensate them for the very low prices they get for the vast majority of their coffee.

The collapse in the price of coffee has meant a step backwards for the community. With a dramatically reduced cash income they can no longer afford to send their children to school, or pay for medicines and a varied diet. As a result people are now dying of easily preventable and treatable diseases.

Ambrose is a quiet, contemplative man. Slimly built, he speaks slowly and hesitantly as if weighing every word. When he talks of coffee and the way his life has turned out he seems bewildered and hurt by what has happened. He was the only child in his family to go on to secondary school, but with high unemployment in Tanzania, his education doesn’t help him to secure a job. To earn money now, he and his brother are reduced to selling second hand European clothes without a street trader’s license. They can sometimes sit with their merchandise spread out before them for three days without securing one sale.


We settle down to do the interview on the landing outside the house of Ambrose’s older brother, Alphonse. Alphonse lives here with his wife and their six children. Since their elderly mother became very sick she too now lives here.

The back of the house looks onto a small stable where three cows and three goats are kept. Out in the yard the youngest children are playing with the neighbours’ children. The older ones are still at primary school. There are vegetables and flowers growing in the garden. Bougainvilleas add splashes of vibrant cerise to the scene.

We settle on chairs on the landing outside the house. Their dying mother lies a few yards away on a thin mattress just inside the living room. Every so often she moans and one of her daughters-in-law tends to her. But there is little they can do.

We are doing the interview here because Ambrose gave the impression that this is where he and his family lived. In order to keep this up throughout the interview he paints a picture about how the two families do everything together. Unwittingly his sister-in-law gives the game away when I return to finish my interview the following day.

In fact Ambrose lives half an hour away, up the gentle slopes towards Kilimanjaro. The views from there are stunning but Ambrose is ashamed of his humble home. Ambrose, his wife Theresia and their five children live in the one-room wooden house where Ambrose grew up. Without running water or electricity they live simply. Theresia cooks over an open fire outside and collects water from a man-made stream nearby. Ambrose is gradually building a new wooden house with three rooms.

His Life

Natural farmer

Ambrose has always enjoyed farming. His father was a coffee farmer and at primary school Ambrose was a member of the farming club. Each club had their own piece of land where they grew beans, spinach, onions and tomatoes. Ambrose became the club leader and at the end of each month there would be a competition for the best produce and farming practices. Ambrose’s team frequently won and the duty teacher commended him.

At home Ambrose was given chickens and small plots of land to grow vegetables. With the proceeds from the eggs and produce he made enough money to buy himself clothes.

‘I grew vegetables and raised chickens to buy new trousers for Christmas. I bought shoes too. I was the first child in my class to wear shoes.’

Today his love and knowledge of farming makes his current situation very difficult. He knows what agricultural inputs and attention his coffee bushes desperately need but he is unable to provide this.

Before liberalisation the cooperative would supply him with fertiliser and pesticides on credit and the money would be deducted from the proceeds of his next harvest. Now having to pay the money upfront, more immediate needs take precedence over inputs. This leads to decreasing yields, poorer coffee quality and consequently even less income.

Secondary School

Ambrose was the only one among his siblings who had the opportunity to go to secondary school. All of his brothers had wanted to go but his father simply couldn’t afford the fees. The year he was to enrol Ambrose had pleased his father with his good grades and fortunately his father had earned a little more money that year. Knowing how keen his son was to go to school, his father took a leap of faith hoping he could raise the fees in the following years. Older brother Alphonse, who was by this time earning his own money, contributed to the costs of sending his youngest brother to school. Ambrose set off for school knowing that if he should fail his exams in any one year that would be the end of school for him.

First job

Ambrose finished secondary school having passed all his exams when he was twenty. He soon got a job working as a storekeeper for the government-owned Tanzania Breweries Ltd. The company sponsored him to do a two-year course in Business Administration between 1984-85 after which time he was promoted.

But even with his promotion he still didn’t earn enough to be able to move out of his parent’s home. He and his new wife, childhood sweetheart Theresia, were planning to start a family and they would have liked a home of their own. At least for now they had a steady and regular income. But then Ambrose lost his job.

In the late eighties under structural adjustment programmes imposed by the IMF, the government privatised national businesses. The resulting upheavals left thousands of people unemployed and still today unemployment remains very high. Ambrose was a casualty of this and hasn’t been able to find another job since.

He went back to helping his father to look after the coffee and food crops, and sharing in the proceeds.

The death of his father

The death of his father in 1996 came as a big shock. On receiving the news Ambrose collapsed. Later while making preparations for the funeral he collapsed again. Although his father was getting on, he was perfectly fit so Ambrose had no inkling he was about to lose the anchor in his life. A gentle and respected man, his father provided calm and security in Ambrose’s uncertain world.

Ambrose explains: “My father was always giving good advice. People went to him with their problems. Others give advice but it can’t be compared. He was a peaceful man - he helped to resolve problems between his brothers when they quarrelled. Even people in the village said ‘You will never find another man like that.’ ”

He also remembers his strong convictions: ‘Even though it was frowned upon, my father would walk hand in hand through the village with my mother, whom he deeply loved.’

After his father died Ambrose inherited two acres of land with coffee bushes interspersed between banana trees. At that time the price of coffee was reasonable and over the next couple of years it remained high. Always an important source of income for his family, Ambrose made a fairly comfortable living from his two acres of coffee. But in 1998 the price of coffee began to fall. First it tumbled to just below the cost of producing it and then it collapsed further and is now still struggling at all-time lows. According to Oxfam the coffee price is now equivalent in real terms to what it was 100 years ago.

After five years of low prices many farmers have let their coffee bushes go or they have replaced them with food crops. Ambrose can’t afford the inputs needed to fertilise and protect his bushes from pests so every year he gets diminishing harvests. Because neighbours are neglecting their coffee too, pests and diseases spread quickly.

‘There is disease on the trees but I can’t buy pesticides, sprays or fertilisers. Whenever I get money I use it for uniforms or books. I can’t use it on inputs. Before, I applied pesticides three times a year, now only once.’

If he wanted to compensate for the lack of inputs it would require more manual labour rather than less. But with the price of coffee so low he must engage in other activities to earn money to feed his family and contribute to the ongoing medical treatment of his sick mother.

Ambrose and Alphonse go to Arusha, a thriving tourist town an hour and a half away, to buy and sell second-hand European clothes. After deducting all their costs for bus fares, accommodation and outlay for the clothes, they can earn 5,000 Tanzanian shillings (£3.50) each a week. Though sometimes they can spend three days without selling anything. They cannot afford to go home until they have sold all of the clothes so sometimes they are away for as much as a month. When they are successful they can go home after just two weeks.

One of the hazards of this work is the corrupt municipal officials. ‘We sell the clothes on the streets without a licence so we are sometimes fined by the municipality. We don’t receive a receipt - they just pocket the money. Or they may just take their pick of the clothes.’

Daily activities

When Ambrose isn’t in Arusha with his brother trying to sell second-hand clothes he has a fairly regular schedule. Shortly after getting up at 6am he has a hearty breakfast of maize porridge and tea. He then goes to work in the farm. After the children have gone to school Theresia comes to join him. They have two acres of coffee, bananas, maize and other food crops for their own consumption. As is traditional, Ambrose looks after the coffee and Theresia takes care of the other crops. Depending on what needs to be done and the time of the year, they turn over the soil, plant, weed, prune or harvest. Theresia goes home early to prepare lunch and at one o’clock they eat together.

After lunch Ambrose goes back to the farm and Theresia tidies up, washes clothes and prepares supper. Ambrose returns at 5 or 6 in the evening for supper. After having a wash, he takes a stroll, and chats with neighbours. Sometimes he goes to the kiosk for a cup of mbege, a local brew made from bananas and millet. He likes beer but it is too expensive.

On Sundays Ambrose and Theresia go to church early and afterwards their children go to a service especially for young people. Sunday lunch is always the best meal of the week when they will have meat with plantain or rice.

Coffee and Fairtrade

The KNCU sells some of its coffee to the Fairtrade market. For this coffee the Fairtrade price of $1.26 per pound is paid. For the rest of their coffee - the vast majority of it - they receive whatever they can get at the auction, at the moment 50 cents per pound. Until recently the extra income generated by Fairtrade sales would be shared equally amongst all the farmers. This would increase the overall price received by farmers in such a marginal way that it had little noticeable impact.

As only the best quality coffee goes to Fairtrade buyers a new system has recently been introduced to reward the farmers who supply it. This means that the difference between the Fairtrade price and the market price now goes to those village-level cooperatives and farmers that produce the best quality. The difference in price is more dramatic and the impact will now be felt. This is a fairer system because it recognises the extra work that goes into producing the best coffee1.

The problem now for Ambrose is that without inputs he will be unable to improve the quality and yield of his coffee. In order to secure the higher prices Ambrose will need to put into practice all of his expertise, devote much more time to his farm and provide the inputs his coffee needs. The problem remains that even if he did all this he couldn’t be sure that he would get the desired quality and that he could secure the premium price. So it could still be a bit of a gamble.

Today and the future

Ambrose had always expected to put his children through secondary school. Unfortunately there are not enough government schools or places, and most people have to pay private school fees if they want their children to go to school. Irrespective of the low coffee price the annual school fees of £240 - £3202 are prohibitively high. Ambrose has had to accept that he won’t be able to send his oldest son Frederick, who just this year graduated from primary school, on to secondary school.

He feels helpless. ‘The low price of coffee affects farmers a lot. Many people are failing to send their children to secondary school. I can’t send my oldest son. I am very worried. I don’t feel happy about this but what can I do?

‘We don’t have power with the market. We have to take whatever price they give us. If I met a buyer I would want to quarrel with them. I would tell them I couldn’t produce better quality or more coffee without more money. I need more money to buy the inputs but I can’t afford them. It costs more to produce coffee than I can earn.’

Thinking of the consequences, he adds: ‘It has caused many people to despair. I don’t like to despair I am always trying to do what I can do to keep going. We have to replace the trees but we can’t.’

When considering the future Ambrose concludes: ‘Actually I don’t forecast anything which is good. That is why I want to work harder on my coffee. I can’t see any other opportunities. Coffee is the only alternative for us now.’

[ 1 ] See ‘A Profile of Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (1984) Ltd – a coffee farmers’ cooperative in Tanzania’.
[ 2 ] Private secondary school fees are between 360,000 – 500,000 Tanzanian shillings a year. Leonard M Kimati, KNCU. 
Fairtrade Foundation: March 2004

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