Tanganyika groundnut scheme

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The Tanganyika groundnut scheme, or East Africa groundnut scheme, was a failed attempt by the British government to cultivate tracts of Tanganyika (modern-day Tanzania) with peanuts. Launched in the aftermath of World War II by the administration of prime minister Clement Attlee, the project was finally abandoned as unworkable in 1951 at considerable cost.

The fact that the region's terrain and rainfall were totally inappropriate for growing groundnuts, as well as the project's ultimate cost and failure, led to the scheme being popularly seen as a symbol of government failure in late colonial Africa.[1][2]


In the period after the Second World War, Britain was in significant debt to the United States, facing what John Maynard Keynes termed a "financial Dunkirk",[3] and the Labour government sought the development of imperial territories to minimise their financial reliance upon the United States. Increasing the cultivation of food supplies in colonial territories, both for local consumption and export, was a central component of this strategy.[4] Moreover, the new Labour government subscribed to a Fabian view of colonial intervention which encouraged a proactive state role in producing primary materials and extending social benefits to colonial populations.[5] The Tanganyika initiative represents part of a "second colonial occupation" within the British Empire, characterised by economic control and technological expertise.[6]

In 1946, Frank Samuel, head of the United Africa Company, came up with an idea to cultivate groundnuts in the British trusteeship of Tanganyika for the production of vegetable oil.[7] Britain remained under World War II rationing and was short of cooking fats. He presented the idea to John Strachey, the Minister of Food, and in April 1946, the British government authorised a mission to visit suitable sites, led by John Wakefield, former Director of Agriculture in Tanganyika.[8]

After a three-month mission, the team's report in September 1946 was optimistically favourable to the scheme and recommended the cultivation of 3.21 million acres for groundnuts by 1952. The Cabinet approved the recommendations in January 1947, and began transporting personnel and machinery to Tanganyika.[5] Officials began to recruit men for the "Groundnut Army" and 100,000 former soldiers volunteered.[citation needed]


The first problem was the lack of heavy equipment to clear the land for cultivation. Eventually, the project managers found some suitable tractors and bulldozers from Canada and bought U.S. Army surplus tractors from the Philippines.

Next, the equipment had to be transported from the Port of Dar es Salaam to the inland site using the only available transport—a single-track railway with steam locomotives. Unfortunately, a sudden flood of the Kinyansungwe River wiped out the rail tracks, leaving a dirt road as the only means of transport. African workers went on strike and the British advance team was left with just one cook. They decided to settle in Sagara with George Nestle, a local hunter.

At this stage, the British team finally decided to test the soil. They deemed it suitable despite the large amount of clay. Managers moved to the site in Kongwa and started to build a village, complete with prefabricated buildings. There was no suitable water source nearby.

When the British began to transfer equipment to the site from Dar es Salaam on the dirt road, they pushed through the Ruvu River and encountered large numbers of dangerous wildlife, including lions and crocodiles. Tractors were scheduled to arrive by February 1947, but only 16 smaller tractors had reached the site by April. They were not entirely suitable for clearing the local brush and bamboo.

Local large baobab trees were also hard to remove and the task was made more difficult by the fact that one of them was a local tribal jail, another was a site of ancestor worship, and many had bees' nests in their hollow trunks. Some of the workers had to be hospitalised for numerous bee stings. On other occasions, workers had to face angry elephants and rhinoceros.

The fact that the site was far from easily accessible water sources caused further problems. The water had to be ferried in and poured into a concrete-lined pool. Locals insisted on using it for swimming, despite protests by the European workers.

Eventually, local managers decided to train local workers for the job. Enthusiastic but inexperienced drivers wrecked many of the tractors. When the Colonial Office sent two men to help the locals form their own trade union, the locals decided to go on strike in support of the dockworkers at Dar es Salaam and demanded better pay and more food. Increased wages of the workers also contributed to local inflation and villagers did not find enough money for food.

By the end of the summer of 1947, two-thirds of the imported tractors had been rendered unusable. Bulldozer blades that were used to butt ground roots were ruined in a couple of days. The Groundnut Army attempted to use "shervicks"—machines that were part Sherman tanks and part tractors—but they were also wrecked in short order. A more effective method was to link two bulldozers with a long chain that would cut through the brush while the third bulldozer could turn over trees that resisted the chain. With that method, the Groundnut Army could clear 40 acres (160,000 m²) a day. When the workers tried to order a suitable ship's anchor chain from London, the managers in London cancelled the first order because they thought it was a joke.

Only with great difficulty was the Groundnut Army able to plant the first nuts. When the rainy season arrived, some of the workshops and stores were swept away by a flash flood. The number of scorpions also increased. After that, the hot season baked the ground clay into a hard surface that made harvesting the nuts very difficult.

Takeover and railway construction[edit]

Modern-day photograph of groundnut cultivation in Malawi

In February 1948, the project became the responsibility of the newly formed Overseas Food Corporation. It sent a new leader, Major-General Desmond Harrison, to the site. He immediately tried to instill military discipline, which did not endear him to the workers. He eventually concentrated on copious paperwork. Late in the year, he was ordered back home on sick leave for advanced anaemia.

In 1949, the Southern Province Railway was constructed in order to transport the crops.

The original target of 150,000 acres (607 km²) was gradually reduced to 50,000 acres (202 km²). After two years, only 2000 tons of groundnuts were harvested. Later in the project, the Groundnut Army tried to switch to growing sunflowers for their oil, but a heavy drought destroyed the crop.

The government cancelled the project in January 1951. The total cost over the years had risen to £49 million and the land had been ruined in the process, leaving it an unusable dust bowl.[citation needed]

Cultural references[edit]

At the end of the 1950 British comedy film The Happiest Days of Your Life, head teachers Muriel Whitchurch (Margaret Rutherford) and Wetherby Pond (Alastair Sim) discuss which corner of the British Empire they can escape to, and she mentions having a brother who "grows groundnuts in Tanganyika".

The Eagle of 29 September 1950, in the Dan Dare strip, 'reproduces' the front page of "Daily World Post" of 28 September 1995. The main item is the lack of news from Dan Dare's expedition to Venus. A small item is headed SUCCESS IN EAST AFRICA - PEANUT ARRIVES IN LONDON: "There was a touching ceremony in London yesterday when a whole unblemished peanut was handed to the Minister of Food by a delegation representing equally the native tribes in the groundnut area and the survivors of the Strachey scheme".

In the 1960 James Bond short story "Quantum of Solace", the governor of The Bahamas tells Bond the story of a career civil servant named Philip Masters who, after a tragic life, gets "shunted off into the ground-nuts scheme."

In a 1968 BBC news programme featuring listeners' comments on the first broadcast of the Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour film, one listener called in to say that the Beatles' film was "the biggest waste of money since the Groundnut Scheme."[9]

The writer and comedian Spike Milligan referred to the Concorde project as a "flying ground-nut scheme" in a cartoon produced for the satirical magazine Private Eye.

In a 1970 episode of the British sitcom Steptoe and Son, Harold (Harry H. Corbett) points out to a former girlfriend that her deceased husband was a "great Tory twit, always sneering about Clem Attlee and the Groundnut Scheme".

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Alan Wood, The Groundnut Affair (1950).
  2. ^ Matteo Rizzo, "What was left of the groundnut scheme? Development disaster and labour market in Southern Tanganyika 1946–1952." Journal of Agrarian Change 6.2 (2006): 205-238.
  3. ^ Toye, Richard (2004). "Churchill and Britain's 'Financial Dunkirk'" (PDF). Twentieth Century British History. 15 (4): 329–360. doi:10.1093/tcbh/15.4.329. Retrieved 26 May 2019.
  4. ^ Hyam, Ronald (2007). Britain's Declining Empire: The Road to Decolonisation, 1918–1968. Cambridge University Press. pp. 131–6. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511802898. ISBN 9780511802898.
  5. ^ a b Esselborn, Stefan (2013). "Environment, Memory, and the Groundnut Scheme: Britain's Largest Colonial Agricultural Development Project and Its Global Legacy" (PDF). Global Environment. 6 (11): 58–93. JSTOR 43201729. Retrieved 26 May 2019.
  6. ^ Darwin, John (2009). The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830–1970. Cambridge University Press. p. 559. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511635526.
  7. ^ Gann, L. H.; Duigan, Peter; Turner, eds. (1975). Colonialism in Africa 1870–1960: Volume 4: The Economics of Colonialism. Cambridge University Press. p. 117. ISBN 0 521 08641 8. Retrieved 26 May 2019.
  8. ^ Anyonge, Nathan Jumba (1966). British Groundnut Scheme in East Africa: Labour Government's Dilemma (PDF) (MA). Kansas State University. Retrieved 26 May 2019. Free to read
  9. ^ "Magical Mystery Tour Revisited," (12:45): https://www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/magical-mystery-tour-revisited/watch-the-full-film/1483/

Further reading[edit]

  • Kelemen, Paul. "Planning for Africa: The British Labour Party's Colonial Development Policy, 1920–1964." Journal of Agrarian Change 7.1 (2007): 76-98.
  • Rizzo, Matteo. "What was left of the groundnut scheme? Development disaster and labour market in Southern Tanganyika 1946–1952." Journal of Agrarian Change 6.2 (2006): 205-238.
  • Wood, Alan (1950). The Groundnut Affair. London: Bodley Head. OCLC 1841364. (A critical account of this project by a British/Australian journalist who worked on the scheme.)

External links[edit]