A recent announcement saying small scale farmers in Babati district, Arusha region have massively stepped up their production of sesame and now Tanzania ranks first in Africa and third in the world in the export of the high-valued oil seed is a welcome development. The news is inspiring especially in a country often portrayed with grim statistics of poverty and mediocrity in farming. Tanzanian is beaten in the production of the seed only by Myanmar and India, both on the Asian continent.
In Tanzania the edible seed, common by the name of simsim in East Africa, is also produced in the southern regions of Mtwara, Lindi and Ruvuma. In 1990 production stood at 30 000 tonnes and now it stands at 460,000 tonnes. Only 650, 000 hectares are occasionally devoted to the crop countrywide. The rapid increase in production of the crop follows many years of research in Lindi that yielded four optimum varieties that are also resistant to pests. This is a great feat for crop researchers.
In Babati district the spectacular achievement in production is partly attributed to Farm Africa, an outfit that delivers extension services and training in improved agricultural practices for small holder farmers. Farm Africa has a marketing project that supports farmers in the district to improve sesame cultivation and increase household incomes. The organization's extensions services have notably been propped up by the use of mobile technology. Through the use of cell phones and other IT communication gadgets, farm experts can now reach out a large number of farmers to deliver high quality training and extension services. The use of ICT methods is said to have reached farmers at about one third of the cost per head compared to use of workshops or demonstration farms.
Sesame, it may surprise many, is the oldest oilseed crop in the world and is one of the most highly valued farm crops now trading globally. Its trade volume has been increasing astronomically in the last two decades, Japan being the largest importer. The seed is used in a variety of cuisines particularly in the East where it is used in sushi foods. Across the world, burgers worth their names, have their buns' tops generously sprinkled with sesame seeds. A burger that does not feature the seed is suspect and regarded as not "finger teasing". In Africa sesame is used in local cuisines, sometimes mixed with cereals.
The nutritional value of the seed which has a wild relative in Africa is astounding. It has zero cholesterol. Whether roasted or dried, sesame is rich in calories and provides almost all essential nutrients that the body needs. The seed has high amount of proteins, fiber and an array of vitamins.
Farmers in Babati villages probably do not know how precious their produce is but they should be able to judge from the number of traders from India and other Eastern countries who frequently visit their villages craving for more supplies. The farmers could earn more if for example they had electronic sorting machines that would help them put into grades their produce according to colour and size. This would ensure them higher prices in the world market, especially if they could sell the produce through a board or cooperative rather than fall prey to middlemen. The villagers could also use the seeds of less quality for oil production which spins money all over the world.
The government should help sesame farmers enter the world market directly rather than through agents who take the lion's share of the proceeds simply by sorting the seeds and knowing where the market is.