Tanzania – Sumbwanga Rural

20120501-202942.jpgWe’ve started our visits to drug shops in this region of Tanzania, which mostly entails sitting alongside interviews in Swahili and waiting long hours for customers to show up. It’s a national holiday so everyone must be busy attending to children at home, cause noone seems to be interested in buying pharmaceuticals today.

This village sits on the outskirts of Sumbwanga town in Rukwa Region. The local economy is based on agricultural trade and local buying and selling of goods available anywhere in Sub Saharan Africa. The market consists of the usual fare, soap, haircuts, soft drinks and beer, but sports a variety of dried fishes and local fruits. I pass on the dried fish as delectable as it looks. The omelet with French fries is also out, sad to say. The oranges, no problem.

Like most places in Africa, people are very kind and will repeatedly thank you making the long journey to their very small and mostly unknown village. Here, so close to friendly and peaceful hotspots like Malawi and Zambia, extreme kindness is a given.

The only business here is small business. Like everywhere in Africa, businesses are informal, sole proprietorships. The drug shops are no exception. I spoke with two shop owners today, both were trained as nurses, but left public service to open or work at small drug shops.

The relationship of drug shops with the public system is worth noting. As the public system in Tanzania relies completely on government revenue and donor aid to function, drugs are often unavailable. In theory, this opens a market opportunity for private shops but in reality it appears that public employees are funneling drugs to shops they have a stake in, as a recent scandal has unveiled.

I spoke with a gentleman today who may be considered exceptional, but likely isn’t. 20 year old Charles, living in an extremely remote town worked burning charcoal for pennies, saved his earnings and opened a small shop, debt free. Now he sells soap, cooking oil and single cigarettes from a small storefront adjacent to one of the drug shops we visited. He would like to save his money and open a shop which sells lights, generators and electrical goods aimed at other shops.

One common misconception about Africa is that Africans lack an entrepreneurial spirit. Far from it, what they actually lack is capital.

All Africans are entrepreneurs. Americans on the other hand mostly just draw paychecks.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

One response to “Tanzania – Sumbwanga Rural”

  1. kumasaki says :


    It is true that the Africa’s image is often, intentionally or unintentionally, distorted so that they are portrayed as being primitive and ignorant. Being poor or having few opportunities does not mean that they never have the potential to be successful. People often make a illogical speculative leap. I feel like I am not free as they are for some reason, or is this just naivety?

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