Women millionaires shaking home economies in rural Kilimanjaro

08Nov 2019
Songa wa Songa
The Guardian
Women millionaires shaking home economies in rural Kilimanjaro

FARMERS who embraced vanilla way back when it was almost worthless, mostly women, have now emerged millionaires who call the shots in Kilimanjaro Region.

In a region where women do not own land traditionally though allowed to till it, women who farm vanilla now have more say not only about the produce but the land itself.


With one kilogramme of green vanilla selling at between 80,000/- and 120,000/-, a quarter acre of land is enough to turn one into a millionaire.

Loveene Uroki is one of the pioneer vanilla farmers in Kilimanjaro Region, and a millionaire for that matter.

The Guardian visited her one-and-half acres farm located at Mamba village, Machame-Uroki Ward in Hai District.

Her first venture into vanilla in early 2000s led to years of caring for "worthless weeds" since there was neither a buyer nor a processor.

Her husband--the land owner--was particularly bitter that the "weeds” occupied land that could have been used for other crops.

But when they were about to weed out vanilla from the farm in 2014, a representative from Natural Extracts Industries (NEI), a company that buys, processes and exports vanilla knocked on her door.

"He said they wanted to promote vanilla farming and requested if I could sell them cuttings from my farm to be distributed to other farmers to plant,” she said.

The request turned Uroki's worthless weeds into serious money.

"At the blink of an eye, I had 5m/- cash from selling cuttings to other farmers as I waited to sell the beans," she narrated.

It was after receiving this money when her husband, Ombeni Uroki who had since abandoned the farm a year or two back, started cleaning and protecting it against invaders, humans and pests as well.

With the harvests that followed, Uroki built a modern 5-bedroom house, educated her three children to tertiary level ( now all independent), bought a minibus, bought dairy cows, and the list goes on.

Her house is truly modern with conveniences such as running water, electricity and satellite television to catch up with what goes on around the world.

She said from her farm, she harvests at least 200kg of green beans which she sells to NEI at between 80,000/- and 120,000/ per kg, earning her not less than 10m/- per harvest season.

"The next harvest in September next year, I will fence my compound and fit the entire place, including the farm, with CCTV cameras to beef up security," she said.

In 2016, Uroki was selected as farmer champion and travelled to Dar es Salaam as part of Shared Value Prize (SVP)-an initiative of Nestlè which NEI won that year.

"It was my first time to board a plane and stay in a top rated hotel," she said. Uroki said she now has more say on both the money and the farm than before.

At the time of this interview, her husband was clearing the farm. "I was frustrated back then because we waited from 2002 to 2014," he said. "This crop has changed our lives; no one who farms it is still poor."

The 50-year-old Uroki is one of 2,000 registered vanilla farmers in Kilimanjaro Region. She has since inspired hundreds of farmers to venture into vanilla.

One of them is her neighbor, Mercy Mwanga (42) who went into vanilla in 2015 after witnessing the changes in the Uroki family.

"I planted vanilla on my quarter acre farm but because it takes up to three years to the first harvest, my husband started to complain, " she said.

She had worked on the farm for two years. Children needed uniforms and upkeep but she had no single coin. Her husband was on her neck.

But when things were about to fall apart in her family, good news arrived:  new farmers were in need of cuttings. She got a quick 1m/- which sorted out the pupils as she waited to harvest.


Since she started harvesting, she has renovated her house, educates her children without stress and has bought dairy cows.

"I have already planted another one acre of vanilla," she said.

But most importantly, she said the husband no longer raises complaints. “He thanks me for venturing into vanilla and we discuss and decide together about the farms and finances."

But what is unique about vanilla farmers is that the majority of them in Kilimanjaro are women.

Fulgence Ndowo, an agronomist with NEI explained that it is partly due to the fact that women are quicker to try new ideas than men.

But most importantly, women are better in pollination of vanilla than men, as it is done carefully by hand using tooth-pick size sticks, the expert noted.

"Since 2016 when we won Nestlé's Shared Value Prize, we have increased the number of farmers in Kilimanjaro Region from 1,000 to 2,000 planters," he said.

Tanzania produces less than 10 metric tonnes of vanilla per year but has the potential to produce 100 metric tonnes, according to NEI.

Madagascar is the world's leading producer with 2,926 tonnes per year followed by Indonesia (2,304), China (885) and Mexico (513).

The spice is used in food, beverages and fragrances.

The field visit to farmers marked the last day of the World Vanilla Conference which took place here at midweek.