Taking a view of West Usambara mountains from the lowlands of Makuyuni, Mombo or Mazinde, the area, full of protruding big rocks, looks extremely ugly.
Travellers bound for Lushoto, who intend to venture into the mountainous township for the first time, in most cases think twice before they eventually decide to take up the challenge.
But as they start the short distance journey at Mombo, either by bus or car, slowly up the hills, they come to realise that after all, the place is not as frightening as they had thought.
As they travel, watching the environment through windows, they notice evergreen shrubs and thickets which are a common sight in hilly areas.
The tarmac road is smooth, albeit narrow, with countless curvatures. On the left side while vehicles negotiate curves towards Lushoto from Mombo, the roadside on the left is planted with eucalyptus trees to protect the road from soil erosion.
After Lushoto, if one travels further on to Mlalo, Mlola, Mtae, Bumbuli, Mponde, Baga wards in the district, one would pass through tea plantations and banana plots.
At Mponde, a large tea processing factory is visibly seen from afar.
The factory was commissioned on September 14, 1971, and officially opened on December 28, 1973, by late Rashid Kawawa, then Prime Minister and Second Vice President. It was built by the Tanzania Tea Authority (TTA), then a parastatal organisation, specifically to serve indigenous small-scale tea farmers in both Lushoto and Korogwe districts.
In December 1999, when privatisation of many firms, about 400 parastatals, took root, the Mponde factory ceased to be a government entity.
The tea processing factory was then sold to Usambara Tea Growers Association (UTEGA) with financial backing of Lushoto Tea Company Ltd.
Presently, the factory, whose production capacity is 120 metric tons of green leaves per day, is jointly owned by Lushoto Tea Company Ltd and tea farmers through umbrella association – UTEGA.
Mponde tea factory is situated in Kweminyasa village, Bumbuli ward. It has two access roads -- one from Soni (13 kms) via Magila village and Soni – Bumbuli (30kms).
At a recent Annual General Meeting (AGM) at the factory premises, UTEGA chairman, William Shellukindo, told the members that the association was formed in 1998 with 1,003 members from both Lushoto and Korogwe and registered under the Cooperatives Act of 1954 and given No. 9523.
“The objective was to create a platform where the farmers would have voice to air their views on the development of their crop,” said Shellukindo, a former parliamentarian for Bumbuli.
“As days went by, other farmers joined forces, a situation which elevated the membership to the present figure of 3,806 out of the 6,500 farmers who are within the UTEGA surroundings.
Residents in the factory catchment area, practice mixed farming, though tea farming is the major agricultural economic activity.
Lushoto tea plantations produce 80 percent of green leaves while Korogwe contributes the rest.
However, the farmers’ association faces countless challenges which threaten the factory – tipped as the biggest in terms of production capacity, compared to three surrounding units at Hercule, Dindira and Kwamdulu.
Top on the challenge list, according to Shellukindo, is extreme shortage of firewood for use in the factory.
“For sometime now, the factory has been buying firewood at exorbitant cost from far away sources, hence raising the cost of production tremendously,” said Shellukindo.
The situation was precipitated by a conflict apparently centred around the ownership of part of the 1000-acre Sakare forest in Dindira Village, Korogwe District.
According to Mponde Tea Company’s Managing Director, Shaddad Mulla, the area under protest was included in the sale agreement when the factory was privatised. A 99- year lease was hence granted and number 546 issued.
The company says a total of 670m/- was invested in the Sakare forest for the last eight years.
“We wonder why the intruders are invading the forest now, and not before privatisation took place,” Mulla was quoted as saying, almost two years ago.
“It is disheartening to note that while the matter is evidently a hot issue, authorities do not seem to consider the matter a serious phenomenon, despite the implications of the crisis”.
“The company is now forced to spend enormous financial resources to buy firewood very far from here (about 100 kms) at a price of 37,800/- per cubic metre against the usual 4,500/-,” he said.
In a desperate bid to find a lasting solution of the crisis, three years ago, Prime Minister Mizengo Pinda, on a visit to the disputed area, directed the regional leadership to chip in and take urgent measures to end the sensitive issue.
Apparently, the issue so far remains unresolved as tree felling in the area continues unabated.
Mponde’s anxiety is precipitated by the fact that the trees they planted over a decade ago, is now being harvested by people who did not invest in the area, according to Mulla.
Another equally thorny issue which showed its ugly neck at the meeting, was the selling of green leaves by UTEGA members and farmers to big tea producers – Hercule and Dindira factories.
Shellukindo said the tendency by the tea producers to buy green leaves from their members and other farmers from Mponde had resulted in their factory producing under capacity –a situation which in turn raised production costs.
On his part, Lushoto Tea Company Ltd chairman Nawab Mulla, whose firm is co-owner of Mponde Tea Factory advised the farmners to 'wake up' and understand that by selling green leaves to other factories, they were weakening their own factory.
“If you sell the product to your own factory, you enable it generate profit. You should be united and sell the leaves to your factory so as to raise incomes”, he said, adding that the farmers should realize that doing so would benefit not only themselves but also their children in terms of possession of shares,” he said.
The Chairman of the Tanzania Small holder Tea Growers Association (TASTGA), George Kyejo, called on the farmers to plant trees on their open farms so that the factory buys firewood from them.
“You should stop bickering, increase acreage in order to become independent. Plant eucaliptus so that your own factory benefits”, he said.
“In Rungwe where I come from, we have a tree plantation project which is aimed at liberating us from depending on other sources as far as procurement of firewood is concerned.'
“Similarly, your factory should solicit for plots on which to plant trees for firewood” he stressed.