Riccardo Pelizzo, Abel Kinyondo and Kristina Bekenova


In the course of the past eight years (2011-2018), Tanzania’s economy has experienced sustained strong growth. In the period, the economy grew by a minimum of 5.1 percent in 2012 to a maximum of 7.9 percent in 2011 with an average of 6.78 a year for the entire period. In spite of such an impressive growth experience, poverty in the country does not seem to have declined (Kinyondo & Pelizzo, 2018). Worse, the Afrobarometer data on the incidence of lived poverty show that the incidence of lived poverty in 2016-18 was still considerably higher than it had been in the 2002-03 period.

There are several reasons why Tanzania may have not been able to reduce poverty in spite of so many years of strong economic growth (Pelizzo, Katera, Mwombela, & Olan’g, 2018). Some regions in Tanzania were more economically successful than others; greater wealth reduced the severity of poverty but not the number of people affected by it; the distribution of wealth became more unequal; and there were clear differences between urban and rural areas in terms of poverty and income inequality. In this respect, Kinyondo and Pelizzo (2018) noted that while the Gini coefficient, which is used to measure income inequality, had declined from 0.33 to 0.29 between 1991 and 1992, it increased from 0.30 to 0.33 between 2011 and 2012. Inequality increased between social groups, urban and rural areas, and between regions and this rising inequality was responsible for the fact that many years of strong economic growth failed to reduce poverty in Tanzania.

Rural areas remained the poorest areas in the country as evidenced by the fact that, while agriculture continues to employ two-thirds of Tanzania’s labour force, it amounts to less than one-third of GDP (Deloitte, 2016). Rural areas were the poorest areas when Ellis and Mdoe (2003) conducted their study on rural poverty in Tanzania. Fifteen years later, the situation has not improved (or has possibly deteriorated) in spite of the country’s impressive economic performance and government’s various efforts to reduce poverty.

Thanks to an in-depth survey that was conducted by REPOA among 106 rural residents to assess whether and to what extent the government’s cash transfer program had managed to empower women and reduce poverty in rural households, we can shed light on poverty in the rural areas of Tanzania. By doing so, we are not only able to estimate how poor rural households are, but also, and, more importantly, to identify some of the factors that are responsible for poverty in such areas and to suggest some policy solutions that could, if implemented, contribute to ameliorating the living conditions of rural households in Tanzania.


Growth and development without poverty reduction

When Ellis and Mdoe (2003) published their seminal piece on rural poverty in Tanzania, they reported that Tanzania had a low GNP per capita (280 US dollars); that it had experienced little to no economic growth for the previous decade (0.3 percent a year); that it was near the bottom of the rankings made with the Human Development Index (140 out of 162 countries); and that it had a fairly short life expectancy at birth (48) and a surprisingly high adult literacy rate (75 percent).

The World Bank’s Database on Development Indicators allows us to paint a picture that, by the end of the last millennium, was fairly similar to what Ellis and Mdoe (2003) went on to portray. In 1999, the GNI per capita was of 280 US dollars, life expectancy at birth was 2.8 years longer than what Ellis and Mdoe (2003) had reported, while literacy (in 2002) was 6.6 percent lower than what Ellis and Mdoe (2003) had indicated in their paper. Moreover, since most development studies use infant mortality, as one of the dimensions along which one may measure socio-economic development, it is possibly worth reporting that the World Bank estimated an infant mortality of 83.6 per 1,000 for Tanzania in 1999.

However, in the first 15 years of the new millennium, Tanzania experienced high growth and development. From 2000 to 2017 included, Tanzania’s GDP grew annually by an average of 6.6 percent a year, GNI per capita increased to 910 US dollars, infant mortality dropped to 38.3 percent, life expectancy increased to 65.6 year (in 2016) and adult literacy increased to nearly 77.9 percent (in 2015). See Table 1.


Table 1: Development Indicators, over time (year)

 GNI per capita 280 US $ (1999) 910 US $ (2017)
Adult literacy 69.4 (2002) 77.87 (2015)
Life expectancy at birth 50.8 (1999) 65.6 (2016)
Infant mortality (per 1000) 83.6 (1999) 38.3 (2017)

Source: World Bank, Development Indicators,


This period of sustained strong growth yielded some developmental dividends but did little to reduce poverty in the country. Lived poverty was more marked in 2014-15 than it had been in 2002-03 (Pelizzo et al., 2018). Previous studies have correctly pointed out that there are several reasons why poverty did not decrease in spite of many years of strong economic growth: inequalities have increased between regions, between rural and urban areas, and in urban settings. Only in rural areas, inequality has not increased, not because rural Tanzania has become more affluent, but possibly because, as we plan to explore, because rural Tanzania has failed to make much progress in alleviating and possibly eradicating poverty.


Income, Assets, Poverty

The income of the respondents varied considerably in size and composition. It varied from a minimum of 20,000 Tanzanian shillings a year, as indicated by a respondent in Madoto (Kilasa) and by a respondent in Mpakali (Mbogwe), to a maximum of 3 million Tanzanian shillings a year as reported by a respondent in Mwendakulima (Kamama). In other words, the income of rural Tanzanians varied from a minimum of 8.7 US dollars a year to a maxim of 1,305 US dollars.

Income varied not only in size but also in composition. Some respondents derive their entire income from their farming activities, other make money from casual work, while the rest earn a living either by baking and selling cakes or by having a rent. Just to give a few examples:

  • A respondent from Misungwi (Ng’wakalima) make 90,000 shillings from selling rice;
  • A respondent from Amani (Unguja) lives off the 20,000 shillings he receives from TASAF;
  • A respondent from Kerege (Bagamoyo) makes 10,000 shillings per day which is also what her husband makes in addition to 200,000 shillings he earns on a monthly basis;
  • A respondent from Izava (Chamwino) makes 20,000 per week;
  • A respondent from Buganda claims to earn between 200 and 250,000 shillings per quarter;
  • A respondent from Ilowelo makes 400,000 shillings a year; and so on.

With few exceptions, income in the rural areas is very low at least because of the following reason. Rural residents only work on fairly small plots of land either because they only own small plots of land or because they do not own any land and need to rent (and renting is expensive), or because even when they own larger plots of land they are not able to cultivate all the land at their disposal. Hence, since they are only able to work small plots of land, there is limit to how much agricultural product they are able to produce. To make matter worse, the land does not yield as much produce as it did in earlier years (with more rainfall and more fertile lands), and the agricultural produce is generally sold for a relatively low price as one can appreciate from the following examples:

  • According to a respondent from Misungwi (Ng’wakalima), his 4-acre farm yielded 6 bags of rice of which 5 were sold for 90,000 shillings (39.1 US dollars);
  • A respondent from Ilowelo (Chamwino) reported that his 4-acre farm produced 80 sacks of corn that were sold at 5,000 shillings each for a grand total of 400,000 shillings (174 US dollars);
  • A respondent from Buganda (Misungwi) cultivates either cassava, tomatoes or cabbages depending on whether the rain is good or not and reports an income from 600,000 to 750,000 shillings a year (from 261 to 326 US dollars);
  • According to a respondent in Igg’hwa (Kahama), 2 acres of land yielded 10 bags of paddy, which were then sold for 900,000 shillings (391 US dollars); and
  • A respondent in Kakumbi (Mbogwe) said that his 2 acres yielded 20 bags of groundnuts, which were sold for 600,000 shillings (261 US dollar).

A second reason why income is low in rural areas is that in such areas the opportunities to work for a wage are scarce and labor is poorly paid:

  • A respondent from Kerege (Bagamoyo) claims that she and her husband could make 10,000 shillings for a day’s work, but, of course, only when work is available;
  • A woman from Ngomango (Itilima) said that when she and her husband work in other people’s farm they earn (together) up to 8,000 shillings (3.48 US dollars) in one day, which is not even enough to buy the maize seeds that they need for their own plot of land;
  • A respondent from Fuoni (Kibondeni) in addition to working his own land, picks up coconut for one to two weeks a year at about 2,000 shillings per day which corresponds to 87 cents of a US dollar.

The fact that residents in rural areas have few opportunities to work for a wage, that the wage is low, and that even when the peasants are able to produce crop they sell it for a low price, explains why income in rural areas as so incredibly low. It also becomes clear why there is so much poverty in rural parts of Tanzania, and why years of strong growth have done little to reduce/eradicate poverty in the rural parts of the country. These findings are in many ways consistent with the evidence gathered by the seven waves of surveys conducted by Afrobarometer in Tanzania and in several other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.[1]

But, if one were to focus exclusively on income, one would end up developing a rather incomplete picture of the wellbeing of rural households, because their wellbeing depends not only on their income, but also on their assets and on the number of family members (Kim, Engelhardt, Prskawetz, & Aassve, 2009). In other words, the cost of feeding 3 people is obviously considerably lower than the cost of feeding a family of 11.

In order to get a better picture of how these households are doing, we need to consider, along with the income, their educational attainment, their resources, and the size of their family. With regard to education, about 32 percent of the respondents reported to have received no schooling, while the remaining 68 percent of respondents had from a minimum of one to a maximum of eight years of education, with an average of 5.8 years of schooling. Overall, the respondents received 3.99 years of education.

The survey administered by REPOA collected information on three types of resources: land ownership, livestock ownership, and ownership of other tools, such as bicycles which, according Ellis and Mdoe (1993), signaled a family’s affluence. The availability of such data is important because it allows of seeing whether, how, and to what extent ownership of resources and, conversely, poverty, has changed in rural Tanzania.

With regard to land ownership, 22.6 percent of the respondents reported not to own any land, while the remaining 77.4 percent of the interviewees indicated to own some land. Only 65.8 of those respondents who owned some land provided a precise indication of the size of the land property. If we discount the responses of the 34.2 percent of the landowners who did not specify the size of the property as system missing, we obtain the percentages presented in the second column of Table 2, while the third column presents the distribution of all respondents by type of response. The evidence presented in the third column indicates that 22.6 percent of the respondents do not own any land and that 16 percent of them own less than 1 hectare. These values are nearly identical to what Ellis and Mdoe (2003, p. 1373) had reported. However, the estimates computed on the basis of the valid answers shows that land ownership has decreased – thus suggesting a possible increase in the poverty level of rural households.

Table 2: Distribution of Respondents by Land Ownership

Land farmed % of valid answers % of total answer
System missing 26.4
None 30.7 22.6
Less than 0.5 ha 10.2 7.5
0.5-1 ha 11.5 8.5
1-2 ha 14.1 10.4
2-3 ha 9.0 6.6
3-5 ha 10.2 7.5
More than 5 ha 14.1 10.4

Source: REPOA survey 2017

While the data on land ownership may not indicate that households in rural Tanzania have become poorer, the data on ownership of livestock makes it quite clear that rural households own less and are, therefore, poorer than they had been in previous years (Table 3).

The data presented in Table 3 allow us to compare the findings reported by Ellis and Mdoe (2003) with the findings of the REPOA survey and track how much poverty has changed (increased).

The study by Ellis and Mdoe (2003:1374) reported that 93.1 percent of the respondents did not own any cattle, 83.1 percent of them did not own goats, and 47.1 percent of them did not own any chicken; it also provides some information on how respondents were distributed depending on the number of owned cattle, goats and chickens. The data at our disposal allow to estimate, with some precision, the percentage of respondents who do not own livestock. It is somewhat harder to estimate the distribution of households by number of livestock owned – most of the respondents, who reported to own livestock, did not provide a specific number as they simply indicated that they own some cattle, goats or chickens.

Table 3: Ownership distribution by household of selected livestock

  Cattle Goats Chicken
2001 2017 2001 2017 2001 2017
0 93.1 92.4 83.1 85.8 47.1 76.1
Some .9 4.7 14.1
1-5 11.8 5.7 10.5 6.7 26.3 5.7
5-10 1.4 2.6 1.9 15.4 0.9
more than 10 3.7 .9 3.7 .9 11.1 2.83

Source: The 2001 data are taken from Ellis and Mdoe (2003). The 2017 data are provided by the REPOA survey.

Ellis and Mdoe (2003) noted that more than a half of their respondents owned chickens, that nearly 17 percent of the respondents owned goats, and that nearly 6.9 percent of them owned cattle. The data at our disposal paint a slightly different picture. The percentage of respondents who own goats had declined by nearly 3 percent; the percentage of respondents who own chickenы dropped by 29 percent, i.e. from 52.9 percent to 23.9 percent. While the drop in the number of chickens owned may due, in part, to the fact that many chickens that the households had purchased contracted some disease and died, the fact that households in rural Tanzania own fewer chickens, fewer goats and roughly the same number of cattle strongly suggests that households in rural Tanzania are poorer than they once were. In slightly different terms, the data show that poverty in rural Tanzania has increased.

With regard to bicycles, only 15 percent of the respondents reported to own one (or more bicycles). Bicycle owners have from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 5 bicycles, with an average of 1.3 bicycles per household.[2]

An additional factor that contributes to poverty of rural households in Tanzania is the size of the household itself. As the data presented so far illustrate, rural households have usually a very modest income, own very few assets, and have to distribute few resources among a quite large number of household members. The size of the household varied from a minimum of 1 to a maximum of 13, with a mean of 6.06.

The combination of lack of resources, low income, and family size lead not only to poverty but rather to lived poverty, which, according to the Afrobarometer, occurs when respondents/citizens have to go without food, water, medical care, cooking fuel, and cash income. The analysis of the in-depth interviews shows that about one sixth of these respondents reported to have experienced food scarcity and hunger. One respondent noted “life is difficult with hunger”, while a relatively young mother lamented to be “sad and desperate when I have no food and children are crying for hunger”. In addition to these respondents, who already had to skip meals and to face scarcity or absence of food, one respondent told that he expected to experience food shortages in the near future because of the low agricultural output for the year.

The combination of above mentioned factors makes rural Tanzania live in poverty, experience deprivation, hunger, and despair. Precisely because of the extension and the severity of poverty, it is important to develop a better and more nuanced understanding of the factors responsible for (lived) poverty in rural areas – it is only by developing such an understanding one may formulate policy recommendations on how the problem could be tackled and, eventually, solved.



The data that were placed at our disposal allow us to comment on the wealth categories proposed by Ellis and Mdoe (2003). According to Ellis and Mdoe (2003, p. 1372), “the well-off in Tanzanian village society are distinguished by having land holding of 4 ha or above, 5 or more cattle, 5–10 or more goats, being educated to primary Standard VII or higher, employing nonfamily labor seasonally, owning bicycles, often owning nonfarm service sector businesses, and enjoying year-round food security.” The middle wealth category has fewer assets and has sometimes to sell labor to cope with food scarcity, while the poor have no assets and need to sell their labor to make a living.

Only one of the respondents included in our sample belongs to the well-off group identified by Ellis and Mdoe (2003), and two others come close because one owns more than 160 hectares (but no cows and goats) and the other own 12 hectares and 30 cows but no goats. Hence, depending on how strictly we want to use the benchmarks proposed by Ellis and Mdoe (2003), there is some, minor, variation in the number of well-off respondents in our sample. The overwhelming majority of respondents fall in the middle wealth and poor category. But what is even more problematic, is the fact that rural households own now fewer livestock and possibly less land than they once did – which means that instead of accumulating assets, trading up, and creating the conditions to move out of poverty, they are actually becoming poorer.


The responses provided by the 106 respondents also reveal that the quality of life of rural households had been badly affected by the decreasing fertility of the soil. According to several of the respondents, it was caused by lack/shortage of rainfall – a problem, if not addressed, will only get worse and prevent rural Tanzania from making any progress along the developmental path envisioned by its current leadership. The eradication of poverty in rural areas does not require cash transfer program, it requires better seeds, equipment, fertilizers and irrigation facilities as Kinyondo and Magashi (2017) had once claimed – a claim that went possibly unheard, a claim that could have had a beneficial impact on the life of many, a claim that is worth reiterating.




Deloitte (2016). Tanzania Economic Outlook 2016: The Story be-hind the numbers. Retrieved February 10, 2019, from

Ellis, F., & Mdoe, N. (2003). Livelihoods and rural poverty reduction in Tanzania. World Development, 31(8), 1367-1384.

Kinyondo, A., & Magashi, J. (2017). Enhancing rural livelihoods in Tanzania: a smallholder farmers’ perspective. International Journal of Accounting and Economics Studies, 5(2), 68-79.

Kinyondo, A., & Pelizzo, R. (2018). Growth, employment, poverty and inequality in Tanzania. Africology: The Journal of Pan African Studies, 11(3), 164-181.

Pelizzo, R., Katera, L., Mwombela, S., & Olan’g, L. (2018). Poverty and development in Tanzania. In Ugo Frasca (ed.) Africa in the Globalisation Era. Alessandria: Edizioni dell’Orso, 45-61.

[1] The Afrobarometer surveys were conducted in 2002-03, 2005-06, 2008-09, 2011-13, 2014-15, 2016-18. The percentage of respondents without income increased from 75.3 percent in 2002-03, peaked in 2011-13 when it reached 88.9 percent, declined to 81.6 percent in 2014-15 and bounced back to 83.2 percent in 2016-18.

[2] The household with 5 bicycles used two of them and rented out the remaining three to supplement their income.