Thobias Millioni Mushi
A profile of a coffee farmer in Tanzania
Thobias is a proud, softly-spoken man and a well-respected member of his community. The collapse of coffee prices has reduced him and countless others in his village to poverty. It is clear that in development terms the farmers here have taken a huge step backwards. Thobias is no longer able to support himself and his wife, Bernadetta, from his coffee. A crushing blow to his pride, he is now dependent on the modest income from Bernadetta’s kiosk in the village. Although his co-operative union, KNCU, supplies 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.
Thobias Millioni Mushi is a member of the Kibosho Central Cooperative Society, one of the societies that make up the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU). Previously he was on the management committee of his cooperative and he still attends all the general meetings. He is also chairman of the Primary School Committee and secretary to the Governing Parish Council.
On the approach to Kibosho Central village you can see the impact of five years of low coffee prices. Where once coffee bushes thrived beneath banana trees in farm after farm, there are now shrivelled, withered shrubs. In many cases they have been replaced by maize or other crops.
In stark contrast, the coffee bushes in Thobias’ farm look healthy and strong. He is one of the few farmers who has continued to invest time and effort in his coffee plants. At 64 years of age, he sees no other option and just prays the price will improve.
The interview takes place in a covered area outside the three-room house where Thobias has always lived. The internal walls are a vibrant, though faded, turquoise. Pushed to the side are several wooden chairs and a yellow painted table, scratched and worn. There are five framed pictures hung high on the walls. One features his family; another, his formidable looking father imperiously looking down on us. Potted plants frame the doorway, bringing some relief to the exposed cement walls outside. A broken-down car parked to the side of the house attests to former wealth.
Bernadetta collects drinking water from a communal pump half a kilometre away. They don’t need much water because they drink and eat all of their meals at Bernadetta’s kiosk where they have direct access to water. For bathing water, they use the man-made gulley that passes by their house.
Born in 1939, Thobias Millioni has lived here, in this house, all his life. His mother was the second of his father’s four wives, each of whom were housed separately on different farms. Thobias is the youngest of three sons and two sisters from the union between his father and mother. He doesn’t know how many half brothers and sisters he has.
Thobias left primary school late at sixteen which is common in this part of the world. He very much wanted to go onto secondary school but his father held him back to look after the farm. He had to take care of the coffee, bananas and animals, not just on the farm where he lived, but on the farms of his father’s other wives. His brothers and half brothers had to work too, but they didn’t work so hard and wouldn’t put up with his father’s endless demands. To keep them in check his father frequently beat them.
‘Among all the boys I had the hardest time. I felt tormented. I had to obey my father with suffering and hardship. Some of my brothers tried to run away but I felt I should stay and obey my father.’
On reflection he thinks this experience did him good because it made him independent. He also believes that because he was the most loyal of the sons, his father singled him out for a special blessing the day before he died. His dying father called Thobias into his room and gave him a blessing that, he believes, secures him a place in heaven.
‘My Dad taught me to work hard. He taught me everything I know about how to produce good coffee. He told me that if you didn’t work hard you would be nothing. I am glad he taught me that.’
His Dad never gave Thobias pocket money or paid him for his labour even later when he was grown up. ‘In those days we were used as economic tools.’
However, his father did make one concession. After the harvesting season, when pruning back the trees, he was allowed to pick any remaining coffee berries and keep the tiny amount of cash that this would generate. The most he could gather would be about two kilos of berries which today would generate about 50p1
His father didn’t release his hold on Thobias even after he and Bernadetta got married in 1963. He would have liked to move out but he didn’t have the money to buy or rent a place. Although food was provided he still wasn’t paid for his labour. So to earn some cash he started to work on other farms in addition to his father’s. When Thobias had children of his own, his father continued to strike him with a stick in front of his wife and young family.
His father died in 1972 and Thobias and all of his brothers inherited two acres of land. Unfortunately this still didn’t mark his financial independence. The coffee trees he inherited were very old and didn’t produce much coffee. He had to continue to work on other peoples’ farms so that he could raise enough money to buy new coffee saplings and little by little he replenished the farm.
The best time for him economically was between 1975 and 1976. He used industrial fertilisers, inputs provided by the cooperative, and achieved much better yields. The good prices throughout the seventies and eighties enabled him to send all of his children to secondary school, though with seven children this still wasn’t easy. He was able to cover the fees only by selling some of his animals. One by one he sold them until he didn’t have any left. Here animals are regarded as security, like a nest egg for a rainy day, so parting with the last one was difficult.
Between 1980 and 1989 Thobias was a member of Kibosho Central Cooperative Society’s Management Committee. Elected by the members, he brought about many changes. The first thing he did was to supervise a tractor project so farmers could pay to have their land worked. With the money the cooperative earned from this Thobias set up a credit service.
Thobias explains: ‘Almost all the members joined the credit service and instead of taking all their money when they were paid for their harvest, they would deposit some money with the society. When they had an emergency they could get their money back, or borrow some if necessary. Ours was the first society [of the 92 in the KNCU] that succeeded in setting up such an operation.’
He is sad and disappointed that both the tractor project and credit service are now defunct. He would like to go back to resurrect them but he doesn’t have enough time now. It takes a lot more work to take care of his coffee without the use of the expensive fertilisers and pesticides that he used to be able to afford. In fact to keep costs down Thobias has developed ingenious methods to reduce use of costly chemicals. For example, instead of spraying a tree with insecticide he checks for evidence of insects living in the bark, plucks out the insect after much scratching and poking about and then injects a tiny amount of insecticide, using a syringe, into precisely the spot where the animal was.
With many coffee bushes abandoned on neighbouring farms, disease and insects spread rapidly. It is an uphill struggle to keep them at bay but Thobias struggles on, recognising the importance of caring for his trees and his coffee.
The worst time in his life was recently in 2000 when he needed a knee operation. The surgery was going to cost 3,000,000 Shillings, around £2,000. The thing that hurt more than the chronic pain was the fact that he had to turn to his children for the money. This is possibly a legacy from his father who drilled into him the need to be independent.
After this episode he dropped out of some of his local activities because it all became too much.[ 1 ]One kilo of standard grade parchment coffee earns 400 Tanzanian shillings.
Thobias and Bernadetta get up 5am and go to her kiosk where she works all day. Thobias serves customers while Bernadetta prepares maize porridge, which they eat together. He takes coffee and she has tea. After breakfast Thobias goes to his farm where he works all morning, returning to the kiosk at midday. For lunch they eat plantain, maize and porridge. ‘If we come across milk we will have milk with it.’
After lunch he goes straight back to the farm. ‘That is part and parcel of my character and my upbringing. I am always working.’ He finishes at 5pm, making it a twelve hour day, and goes to the kiosk to have supper with his wife. When they can afford it they will have a beer. They stay at the kiosk chatting with customers and passers-by by until the last customers have gone, generally around 8pm.
On Sundays Bernadetta goes to the first mass and Thobias looks after the kiosk. Then she prepares the midday meal while he is at church. One of them always covers the kiosk.
Thobias explains: ‘The kiosk is open every day of the year. We get our best business on national holidays. For Christmas it is even better because the relatives of local families return from the capital and other countries to spend the holiday at home.’
On Christmas day they close at 7pm, an hour earlier than usual. The kiosk used to provide a useful supplementary source of income. Now it is clear they are dependent on the modest revenue it generates. Thobias, who feels that it is his job to earn the money, prefers to play it down.
‘Although it doesn’t make much money it provides a few shillings so that we can have a drink in the evening.’
Although he has dropped some of his local responsibilities he remains quite busy. He is still the chairman of the Primary School Committee that meets on Friday afternoons and secretary to the Governing Council of his Parish Church that meets on Sunday evenings.
The work for the school involves ‘supervising the use of funds and joining hands with teachers to help with discipline, both in the school and out on the street.’ Some of the work is quite practical. Recently he went with teachers around to the homes of parents who weren’t contributing towards school lunch to encourage them to give something. They came away with produce and bananas from their farms. Many people here are now so poor they really cannot pay the small costs to cover school lunches.
Coffee and Fairtrade
The price of coffee has been struggling at an all-time low since 2000. It is way below the cost of producing the crop, leaving farmers throughout the world in crisis. Although the local society sells some of their coffee to the Fairtrade market, it is too small a percentage to have a direct economic impact on the overall income of the farmers. Although not obviously apparent, Fairtrade has helped to ensure their society and the Cooperative Union have at least survived through these difficult times2
. As other farmers have discovered, without their Cooperatives the members would be completely at the mercy of the local traders who have halved their prices now they no longer have to compete with farmers’ organisations.
Although not on the Management Committee, Thobias still goes to all the general members’ meetings of the society. An important benefit for him is that there is a sense of solidarity, that they are all together facing the same situation, though in reality many younger farmers have bailed out to seek other work in nearby towns. Also at these meetings Thobias gets general information about the coffee market, which he finds useful.
Today and the future
When asked what difference the low price has made to his life, the first thing Thobias comments on is the way he is turned out. He is wearing rust coloured jeans and a torn short-sleeved button-up shirt. ‘I used to be smart, now look at me.’
‘Even though the price of coffee is so low it is unthinkable to change to something else. We cannot change. We are in dire consequences. Why doesn’t the government intervene? Why can’t KNCU and the government get together and do something to help us? We can’t improve our production or our quality because we can’t afford the inputs we must buy. The society used to provide this on credit but doesn’t anymore3
. Also many farmers need training and education to improve the quality of production. Before there were experts, now there is nobody we can refer to.’
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 coffee4
Considering the effort that Thobias puts into his coffee it is likely he will achieve these better prices. But for all the farmers to benefit, there needs to be a significant increase in the world price of coffee or much higher sales to the Fairtrade market.
[ 2] For more information read, ‘The Kilimanjaro National Coffee Union, a profile of a coffee farmers’ cooperative in Tanzania. The Fairtrade Foundation. January 2004.
[ 3 ] Since liberalisation KNCU can no longer provide inputs. After giving out US$800,000 of inputs on credit farmers then sold their coffee to local dealers and avoided their cooperative to defer payment. KNCU had to write off the debt to avoid losing its members.
[ 4 ] For more information see, ‘The Kilimanjaro National Coffee Union, a profile of a coffee farmers’ cooperative in Tanzania. The Fairtrade Foundation. January 2004
Fairtrade Foundation March 2004
Look for the FAIRTRADE Mark on products. It’s your guarantee that disavantaged farmers and workers in the developing world are getting a better deal.