Arusha — Tanzania's Sh537 billion ($240 million) pigeon pea industry is on a sharp nosedive after India banned import of the legumes from Tanzania in August last year.
The unanticipated restriction is now wreaking havoc on hundreds of pigeon pea farmers and traders across the country who are holding hundreds of tonnes of the legume for lack of market.
Reasons behind the ban have not been clear, but some reports have attributed the restriction to over-production of the legumes in India in the last two years.
The price of pigeon pea which remained stable at between Sh1,500 and Sh4,000 in the last four seasons has drastically dropped to Sh200 as the result.
India's ministry of Commerce and Industry issued a Trade Notice No 13 (2015-2020) restricting imports of commodity from countries with no bilateral agreement on the crop with the South Asian nation.
The Indian notice caught farmers and traders unprepared as it came at the peak season for the crop, meaning farmers are currently facing significant losses from their investments and the government is now losing a lot in export revenue.
Local authorities in regions known for large scale cultivation of the crop are blaming sharp fall of revenue on the import restriction.
The move is also reported to have put local banks which have provided loans to pigeon pea farmers in difficult time as the lenders fail to furnish their debts.
The Ministry of Agriculture estimates that about 300,000 households are involved in pigeon pea farming.
The heavily criticised ban came despite the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed by the two countries in 2000 under which Tanzania would grow the grains for the Indian market. India is the main export destination for Tanzania pigeon peas and other pulses.
"The shutting out of Tanzania means the farmers are missing cash they have enjoyed for the last 50 years. It has also given advantage to the country's competitors," said Mr Daniel Charles, the CEO of the Arusha-based Kilimo Markets Limited.
The firm works with the smallholder farmers to enhance their capacity in production and marketing pigeon pea and other beans for the export market, focusing mainly on the northern zone regions. The Minister for Industry, Trade and Investment, Mr Charles Mwijage, told The Citizen that the government is negotiating with the Indian government to relax the ban.
"We are still negotiating with India on a bilateral agreement specifically tailored for pigeon peas," he said.
Renewed negotiations between the two governments since then to have the biting ban revoked have borne no fruit to date, heightening growing fears to the farmers where pigeon pea is a leading cash crop.
That is also despite the support of the Geneva-based International Trade Centre (ITC), a multilateral agency with the joint mandate with the World Trade Organisation, to promote exports from the developing countries.
Also involved in talks to rescue the situation are the newly-formed Tanzania Pulses Network (TPN) based in Dar es Salaam and the East African Grains Council (EAGC), a regional body based in Nairobi.
Kilimo Markets Limited and nearly a dozen other major exporters of the grains feel the ban is discriminatory and violation of international treaties on trade by India.
"There could be a discrimination against Tanzania. The announcement (in August 2017) was made even before the harvesting of the crop for sale to our traditional buyers," Mr Charles told The Citizen in an interview.
"They abandoned their produce in the fields," he said, noting that the impact has been devastating not only to the growers but to the entire value chain from the local buyers, exporters and the banks due to the loss market.
He said it is high time that Tanzania files a complaint with the WTO whose rules forbid any member country from restricting other members to accessing their markets. "They can impose duties not quantitative restriction."
Tanzania's pigeon pea exports to India ranged from 160,000 to 180,000 tonnes annually out of an estimated 200,000 tonnes yearly production.
That accounted for 97 per cent of the exports. The remainder is sold to the Middle East, Kenya, Eastern Europe, and North America.
In India and other Asian countries, the grain is a common good consumed on large scale and is a major source of protein for the population.
The ban also covered green gramme and chick peas with annual production estimated at 100,000 and 80,000 tonnes respectively. Most of them are also traditionally exported to India.
Other industry sources talked of possible collusion between the main importers and large producers in India to deliberately block the imports in order to maximise higher profits or to protect their local market.
There is no justification, nonetheless, Mr Charles argues. "This is a violation of WTO rules. Under WTO this is not justifiable."
Best practices in International trade, he pointed out, would only allow increased import duty "even of up to 100 per cent" but not quantitative restriction.
"Our exporters are ready to sacrifice 10 per cent to 20 per cent loss because they can still sell it but now they could not sell because of the total restriction," he explained.
Tanzania is ranked tenth in the global production of pigeon peas and second in Africa. India doubles as the main producer and importer, followed by Myanmar, Mozambique, Malawi, South Sudan, Canada, Ukraine and Russia.
Other countries producing the crop include Kenya and Uganda. It is estimated about 100,000 hectares are under cultivation of the drought-resistant legume across the country, with Babati being the leading district.
During his visit to Tanzania in 2016, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised his country would increase its imports from Tanzania to one million tonnes annually for all pulses, including pigeon peas.
A year later the import ban was imposed shutting out Tanzania. Nonetheless, countries such as Mozambique and Malawi continued to enjoy the South Asia country's huge market of legumes buyers.
Among those hard hit are the farmers in Babati, Manyara, Tunduru, Mtwara, Nanyumbu, Masasi, Newala and Kondoa districts, where pigeon peas has been the leading cash crop for several years now.
Local traders have since last August been buying the beans at Sh200 per kilo from between Sh1,600 and Sh4, 000 in 2016.
"We have been told the drastic fall has been attributed to saturation of the market in India," said Mr Martin Pius, an official of the national farmers' network (Mviwata) in the region.
Mr Steven Lyimo, an agriculture consultant with the Arusha-based Selian Agricultural Research Institute (Sari), says production of pigeon peas has been boosted by recent application of crop husbandry technologies.
These include the use of improved seeds, disease control and conservation agriculture. In Karatu District, eight bags of the beans are now harvested from one acre, up from two to three bags a decade ago.
"Production of pigeon peas in Karatu has gone up to 20,000 tonnes in 2016 from a mere 7,000 tonnes in 2005," he said during a Farmers' Day event organised by the institute recently.