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Size isn't everything: narratives of scale and viability in a Tanzanian irrigation scheme*

  • Elizabeth Harrison (a1) and Anna Mdee (a2)

This paper explores tensions over scale and viability in irrigated agricultural development in Tanzania. A revival of ambition to transform African agriculture has reawakened debate over what type of agriculture can best deliver increased production and poverty reduction for rural populations. This paper examines these debates through the lens of an ethnographic study of an irrigated rice farm in Tanzania. With a chequered history of state and donor intervention management, Dakawa, Rice Farm in Mvomero District is now collectively farmed by a cooperative society of ‘small farmers’. It is widely hailed as a success, both of irrigation production, and of ‘small farmers’ in delivering this. However, such narratives of smallness and success obscure a more complex reality in which smallness of scale may be more of a discursive tool than a reflection of empirical reality. Although notions of ‘viability’ and ‘success’ in such development interventions are themselves also contested and depend on perspective, there is evidence that there are fundamental problems of both short- and long-term viability.

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This article is based on research funded by the DFID-ESRC Growth Research Programme, grant reference EJ/JOO9415/1. The authors would like to thank the fieldwork team of Chris Mdee, Elias Bahati and Erast Mdee. We are grateful to Andrew Coulson and Chris Nikitas for discussion of the ideas on which this paper is based. James Fairhead, Ian Scoones and Steve Wiggins provided helpful comments on early drafts. We would also like to thank our two anonymous referees for their constructive suggestions.

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