The Groundnut Scheme is nearly forgotten now. But in its time, it was a notorious scandal that dominated British politics as well as the economy of colonial Tanganyika, and which is still of relevance today. The scheme was, in more than one sense, nuts – and yet the equivalent of £1 billion was spent on it before it was closed down. How did this happen? And what lessons should we learn?
This is the subject of my new book Imperialism and Development: the East African Groundnut Scheme and its legacy.
In 1945, post-war Britain was strapped for cash, short of food and desperate for a new start, one that Attlee’s Labour Government promised the country. So it was that in 1946 the idea was floated of using some of the ‘empty space’ in Britain’s East African colonies to set up from scratch the largest mechanised peanut farm in the world. Within five years they planned to transform Tanganyika’s economy and supply enough oilseeds to make a big increase in the margarine ration for the ‘harassed housewives of Hounslow’.
Buoyed by a fanatical faith in the benefits of modern mechanised agriculture and the capability of Britain’s demobbed soldiers to fix any problem on the spot, the project was rushed ahead at full speed by the Minister of Food, John Strachey, against the advice of the experts in tropical farming. Without time for a pilot scheme or proper crop trials, things went badly wrong from the start.
Much of the army surplus equipment they bought proved useless; infrastructure in the cash-strapped Tanganyika Territory was woefully inadequate; the management was dominated by political appointees; the private sector contractors were cavalier and extravagant; but – above all – there was simply not enough reliable rain for the crops to grow. No-one had checked.
The scheme showed that the African bush could not be treated like the Canadian prairie. Developing African agriculture required more care, more research and more attention to local knowledge than reliance on ‘superior’ western know-how. It was a classic example of late imperial hubris. Visit the site of the scheme now, at Kongwa in central Tanzania, and there is almost nothing left to show that 10,000 people once lived and worked there.
But more than that, the story of the scheme demonstrated that a primarily political project pursued in haste for primarily political ends, ignoring locals and experts, will so often end not just in tears but in a massive cost to the taxpayer and a political price for the government. In 1951, when the scheme was finally closed, £36 million – equivalent to £1 billion today – was written off, and Labour lost the general election. Since then there have been many more groundnut schemes – megaprojects of every kind that were ill-conceived, badly managed and which came to sticky and expensive ends. Many are listed in the book, many more have been quietly buried without trace by embarrassed politicians. But we need to learn the real lessons or they will keep on happening: proceed with caution, listen to the experts even if you don’t agree with them, and ensure capable, not political, management and clear lines of responsibility to those who are paying for it. Then we might just waste a bit less and achieve a bit more.
This guest post was written by Dr Nicholas Westcott, Director of the Royal African Society and a former academic and diplomat.
Don’t miss the launch of Dr Westcott’s book on the 13th of October. More details can be found here.
Enjoy 35% off this book using code BB685!