James Lanka’s article in IPP Media documents the history of the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union, Africa’s oldest Coffee Cooperative, as told by Philip Tesha, one of its original members. The story is a testament to the role cooperatives can play in improving peoples’ lives and empowering local communities.
Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU) is the Africa’s oldest Coffee Cooperative Union, founded in 1933 as a Marketing Organization for the Indigenous Farmers of the Chagga Tribe living on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, the ‘roof of Africa’. Along with all of Tanzania’s Cooperatives, KNCU was banned by the government in 1976, but then reinstated in 1984 as KNCU (1984) Ltd. Today, KNCU has about 70,000 members from 92 local cooperatives found in Districts of Siha, Hai, Moshi Rural and Rombo. Their smooth mild beans are considered to be amongst the finest in Africa. We are certified by Fair Trade Labeling Organization since 1993. The oldest Union in Africa, KNCU has been a great pioneer of Cooperative Movement in Tanzania and Africa in general.
“About 80 years of KNCU since its establishment, I have been of great experience to KNCU, its members and the movement in large. From 11 societies’ member to 67 societies for sure it is a story to be told I am very proud to witness this, many of my age wished to see this future,” joyfully narrates a 99 year-old and a former general manager of KNCU Philip Tesha, who is now reaching 100 years old of born. Speaking with this paper at his home residence in Njari village, Uru North ward, in Moshi Rural district, Mzee Tesha who was born in 1913 in the village (about 100 a decade now) and employed at KNCU in 1933 share his experience on KNCU and coffee production in Kilimanjaro region in general. “I was at first employed at KNCU in early 1930’s as a Supervisor, and in 1952 six youth from Chagga land were taken by our elders to the Cambridge University in UK to study coffee production and marketing so that when we will come back, will help our elders to get good coffee market within and outside the country as some European coffee buyers by that time were paying them very low in coffee market..” explained Mzee Tesha during an exclusive interviews. He added that, when he came back from United Kingdom in 1952, he was promoted from being Supervisor to General Manager of KNCU, and became the second ‘black man’ to hold that position that he took from his successor, the late Adrea Shangarai, who was the first ‘black man’ to hold such a position for the KNCU. Commenting on coffee production in Kilimanjaro region, mzee Tesha explained, “I was It was 20 years after the first coffee seedlings were planted in Kilema, Moshi by Roman Catholic missionaries from Germany in 1898, that a native from slopes of highest Kilimanjaro was allowed for the first time to grow coffee.” He added that, Only Missionaries and white settlers were allowed to cultivate coffee, but this situation changed after the arrival of Sir Charles Dundas. He was the first British District Commissioner of Moshi. He argued natives to go for coffee cultivation. “He allowed us to plant coffee though we weren’t knowledgeable with the plant, Asian businessmen and White settlers did not like the idea, but Charles was the commissioner, he had power. Our ignorance to coffee business attracted exploiters to buy our coffee at the lowest price. A need to have a voice on this aroused.” details Mzee Tesha. According to him, as opposed to white settlers and Asian businessmen the natives formed their first association in 1925 called Kilimanjaro Natives Planters Association (KNPA) led by Joseph Melinyo, but the association did not last longer. He added that, in collaboration with former world war British pilot named Bennet, Sir Dundas assisted natives to form primary societies under Cooperative Ordinance of 1932;these societies were Kibong’oto Wanri, Machame Central, Uru Central Mawela, Mkuu Rombo, Tarakea, Kilema, Kibosho East, Kibosho West, Kibosho Central, Mamba and Keni. “Places where chiefs reside were centers of small developed towns, within those, primary cooperative societies were formed. A chief provided land for these societies. That’s a reason why most of these societies found in populated areas. They paved a way for registration of Union,” pointed out the old man Philip Tesha. He further clarified that, On 29th December of 1933 KNCU was registered as the first cooperative union in Africa. “Thirty years later KNCU became a giant economic organization owning school, cooperative college, and sponsored farmers’ children education. It owned houses, farms, vehicles, coffee curing company, ginnery and a hotel located on the second and the third floor of a modern building with elevator launched in 1953 by Queen Elizabeth as the first one. More societies merged and serve thousands of members who sold their coffee to KNCU.” the old man, and one of co-founders of KNCU explained. According to Mzee Tesha, the night before government abolished cooperatives, wise men had been told by secret sources and therefore they spend a night resolving KNCU and registering Kilimanjaro Uremi Corporation or KUC.
“The next morning the announcement was made, all properties were under KUC. That’s why we still have some of the properties otherwise we wouldn’t have this building today,” Mzee Tesha further explained. In 1982 the government introduced a new Cooperative Act; it took six years for this to happen, after the abolishment of cooperatives. KNCU was re-registered on 9th March, 1984 as KNCU (1984) Ltd. From state ownership economy to market liberty, KNCU has been struggling and surviving in the hard way. KNCU monopolize coffee collection and many other businesses under state owning economy. “After the liberalization of the market everything changed, private buyers were allowed to collect coffee from same members, we lost the monopoly. Individuals were allowed to sale sugar, cement, food and other many things that KNCU sale. The price of coffee dropped, members were discouraged and some decided to uproot their coffee and plant vegetables. The competition was very tight,” explains the old man. In 1992 the government had no choice but to accept the changes. These changes had so many effects to date. Cooperatives Unions monopolized the market and others sectors, it employs so many people and it had so many activities because of the existing system. KNCU employed more than six hundred people, with serious competition and less preparation for the new system; it found itself in a very difficult time. “We had to cut down the number of our employees, from six hundred to thirty two people. Really it was hard task, we turned ourselves to a core function of KNCU, the coffee. We drop down all shops, farms and other businesses and rent them to investors, we are just collecting rent that helps us to run other operations,” adds Mzee Tesha. He added that, there are so many to be told about KNCU, most important is KNCU has struggled hard and eventually it has survived and it will keeping on standing as a great Cooperative Union in Tanzania and Africa. On his side, the KNCU Chairman Mr. Menard Swai said KNCU has a very long and impressing history, concluding that, the organization can also be described as the ‘founder’ of Co-operatives in the country. “Through KNCU, so many Co-operatives unions was established in different parts of the country, so we can describe that, KNCU is the ‘founder’ of Co-operatives in country..” concluded Mr. Swai. On his side, the current KNCU General Manager Mr. Honest Temba said that, the organization is striving to make sure that, small scale coffee farmers are getting good market of the coffee they produce through their Rural Co-operative Societies (RCs), hence improving their life hood. “Apart from making sure that our coffee growers are benefited with god market of the coffee they produce, we have also establish KNCU health insurance project aims at providing free health services to our small scale coffee farmers and their dependants..” the KNCU general Manager explained. He added that, the on-going KNCU and PharmAccess joint project aims at improving health services to the community particularly those who lives in rural areas who can not afford to get them on time as most of the good health services are not available in such areas. “Since its launch in April 2011, the KNCU Health Plan is now serving in excess of 16,000 people with affordable primary healthcare in different 20 health centres in four districts of Kilimanjaro region namely Hai, Siha, Rombo and Moshi Rural.” Mr. Temba explained. Created to meet the demand for affordable primary healthcare, he added, the KNCU Health Plan was developed in partnership with the PharmAccess Foundation (PharmAccess), the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU) and the Mission for Essential Medical Supplies (MEMS) to serve those living in the Kilimanjaro area of northern Tanzania.