Landscapes as a Mosaic: Piecing the Parts Together in Tanzania

BY: Annet Witteveen - 26. March 2024

The Simiyu and Singida regions of central Tanzania cover nearly 7.5 million hectares, which is almost double the size of Switzerland. In such an extensive landscape farmed by smallholders, it would be absurd to think that one NGO such as Helvetas could coordinate and implement a landscape approach. Yet we can play an active role. Read on to learn why we’re pursuing this approach, with whom, where and how.

Why pursue the landscape approach?

The why is simple: The livelihoods of rural people in these two semi-arid regions are increasingly exposed to the severe impacts of progressive climate change, especially an increasing irregularity and unpredictability of rainfall. Nevertheless, the population is growing, contributing to deforestation and increasing soil erosion. Years of monoculture farming, including the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals without any regenerative practices, have mined the natural productivity of the land. The loss of biodiversity and declining soil health has a very real, negative impact on rural livelihoods, rendering smallholder farming communities ever more vulnerable to climate change, poor harvests and indebtedness.

Who are crucial stakeholders in this approach?

The people in the landscape are farmers and pastoralists whose interests have, in the past, often been viewed through the prism of “greater” needs. That is, the need for increased domestic production of key commodities such as cotton and sunflower oil, or the need for nature conservation and tourist income from wildlife safaris. We turned this perspective around to focus on the rural people and their common interests.

When asked, smallholder farmers generally express a wish to make a better, decent living from the land – not only for the present, but also for future generations. Key for them is how to make their land more sustainably productive and more resilient within the landscape, given the increased risk of floods and droughts. They would like to have and apply more “nature-based solutions” – technologies and approaches that are in their hands and that allow for a diversification of crops to take advantage of market variations. They seek to reduce their dependence on expensive inputs and on single crops with single buyers who dictate prices.

As a broad generalization, men are more interested in commercial crops, while women focus on subsistence crops. Women’s traditional responsibilities as caregivers, food growers and collectors of food, water and fuelwood (usually from off-farm areas) mean that they tend to be especially aware of environmental changes. They have much potential to contribute to the sustainable management of natural resources, although more often than not it is men who own most of the land and who participate in strategic community decision making.

Another crucial group of stakeholders in the landscape are the private sector companies that work directly with smallholders. These are the cotton ginners, the sunflower oil processors and the like. Through the promotion of organic cotton, Helvetas already has longstanding relations with some of these companies, which also recognize that declining soil fertility and the impacts of climate change mean that “business as usual” is no longer possible.  

Working with the government is essential – especially the local government authorities, who are key in facilitating local-level spatial planning. Tanzanian law allows for a participatory process of village land use planning; the resulting plans must be verified at the district level and ratified by the National Land Use Commission. In practice, village councils lack the funds to undertake such planning alone and rely on outside funding – from donors or government projects – to support the process.

© Franz Thiel
Tanzania's central plateau is typically a mosaic of smallholder plots, here with the land turning green as the cropping season starts. © Franz Thiel
© Jane Carter
Working with local government authorities is essential. Here Magesa Asenas Magesa, Principal Land Officer and Head of the Department of Lands, Iramba District Council, stands in front of the district land records. © Jane Carter

Where do we start?

Looking at the land from a spatial perspective, it is important to focus on connectivity, both within the landscape and beyond. Local spatial planning is one way to support smallholder farmers in thinking about the “joined up” use of private and communal land, working through government procedures.

Smallholder communities are, through the value chains of their products, linked to markets beyond their geographic or administrative boundaries. Here the private sector can play a key role in shaping the landscape through demand and supply, especially when it comes to value chains involving large groups of smallholders.

How do we build connections in a mosaic of people and ecosystems?

A strength of the smallholder-centered landscape approach is adaptability and responsiveness to the specific local and regional context. We see a landscape as a mosaic of ecosystems and of people living within them. We look for opportunities to work in different pieces of the mosaic in a connected manner, with each of our interventions being a part of the landscape puzzle. We currently manage three initiatives: the Green Production Landscape Singida, the Regenerative Productive Landscape, and Ukijani - Women in Green Production, and are actively seeking others. We recognize that Helvetas is not an isolated actor, but one of many within the landscape of Singida and Simiyu.

One way of providing women and youth with the chance to play a leading role in landscape restoration is through Village Loan and Saving Associations (VSLAs). Once members of such groups have financial resources, they have a voice: They can buy or lease land, determine the crops they grow, and, as a group, they can try out new crops or practices and negotiate fair prices for their production. They can also participate in village-level land use planning meetings and argue for land restoration and regenerative practices within the landscape, such as tree planting around important water sources, the protection of riverbanks from trampling livestock, the prevention of gully erosion, etc. We work with VSLAs in all three of our projects.

«Green cools you down, it makes you less irritated, it makes you connect better to others. Land restoration brings a lot of opportunities beyond just trees. »

-Ajili M. Mughanga, woman leader of Tumaini VSLA, Mkunguakiendo village, Ikungi district, Singida

Private sector companies, such as our partner BioSustain in the Green Production Landscape Singida project, have long-term relations with smallholder farmers and fill important gaps in terms of training and extension on better practices, access to inputs and providing markets for produce. We support the company in its promotion of more nature-friendly approaches such as rotational cropping systems (entailing product diversification) and improved market linkages to organic buyers.

At the village level, we train entrepreneurial individuals – especially young people – to become Local Service Providers (LSPs). Based within their communities, they provide advisory, input and marketing services related to “nature-friendly” agriculture and business development. This results both in meaningful local employment for young people and provides smallholder farmers with opportunities to innovate. For example, under the Ukijani project, LSPs promote agroforestry incorporating the use of nitrogen fixing species, drought-resistant crop varieties, composting, mulching and natural pesticides.

Working in a landscape requires close collaboration with the respective local government authorities, something that is emphasized in all our projects. This is especially necessary when supporting smallholder farmers to gain legal tenure over the land they farm – which can only be achieved once village land use planning has been completed. Equally important, Helvetas Tanzania maintains a strong rapport with the national authorities in Dodoma, where both administrative and technical staff are based. Regular interactions with government staff, including bringing field realities to policy makers, are especially important in ensuring an enabling and supportive environment for smallholder communities.

Finally, it is important to note that a landscape approach provides a longer-term perspective than the often short-term thinking of many donors. And this is necessary: Nature-based solutions require time to take hold – especially if they are to be scaled up to a landscape level.   

About the Author

Annet Witteveen is the Country Director for Helvetas Tanzania and is based in Dodoma, Tanzania.

Our work in Tanzania

Helvetas has been present in Tanzania since the 1970s, working towards the improvement of basic education and skills development, access to quality services, inclusive economic development and good governance to promote local development. Presently, Helvetas Tanzania’s staff of 50 oversees 12 development initiatives in the country’s Central zone and Southern Highlands.

Since July 2020 Tanzania has been categorized as a lower-middle income country. This achievement reflects sustained macro-economic, social and political stability, combined with the country’s rich natural resources and strategic geographic position. Despite these recent social and economic gains, several factors, many of them gender-related, continue to hinder the ability of marginalized groups to realize their full potential. The agricultural sector still employs 65% of the population, but increasing pressure on land due to a rapidly growing population contributes to detrimental land-use practices, deforestation and a loss of biodiversity, resulting in loss of income and migration to urban areas.

To better approach and build our program with the inclusion of marginalized people, Helvetas Tanzania introduced a landscape perspective in the country program strategy 2023-2027. This allows for a better understanding of the ongoing rural-urban transformation, the increasing pressure on the natural environment, and the adverse impacts of climate change.

How Helvetas Supports People in Tanzania

Increasing income opportunities for farmers and improving primary education are some of our priorities in Tanzania.

Climate & Disaster Resilience

Every year, we support over 1,000,000 people in adapting to climate change, reducing the risks of disasters, sustainably managing natural resources, and conserving nature.