Import taxes, solar panels, and education in a small Tanzanian village

One of the students – Christian Kaufman - had an unexpected encounter while travelling through Tanzania that left its mark.

He tells the story below.

The driver pulled to the side of the road and got off the vehicle unexpectedly. As he walked away, I was looking outside the window in a confused manner.

"He must have seen something out there in the rain", thought I, "... well...hakuna matata".

The door opened suddenly:
"Would you mind sharing your seat?"
"Umm.. Of course not, but what's going on?"

And he walked away again. On his return, a well aged man and presumably his wife carrying shopping bags smiled gratefully at me upon lifting themselves into the seat next to me. After telling me of their struggles to get back to the village, and expressing his gratitude for my kindness of giving them a ride numerous times, the man introduced himself as the soon to be retired head of school of the village I was staying in.

I learned about the trouble he had had to encourage children to come to school and that the most effective means had been offering a hot meal every day that he managed to provide through donations from tourists in the village. Given his exceptional engagement towards tackling poverty and providing education, his school had recently been awarded a national prize.

The weeks since then had been busy for him and his school, as I learned from his enthusiastic storytelling, because many teachers from across the country had been coming to visit his school in order to learn from his experience. Yet, a trace of desperation was noticeable when he told me about a shipment of laptops that he had managed to collect from donors in Europe, had still not arrived, three months after it had been dispatched.

The few computers they have in the school are largely useless due to frequent power shortages, so he regrets that he had not been able yet to provide his pupils with IT education which he believes is crucial for the future. I could not provide him with an answer as to why the shipment had not arrived yet or whether it ever would, but I told him about solar panels and how the weather conditions are optimal to provide electricity for his school. I saw the eagerness in his eyes to learn more about it.

"Can you give our school such a panel?"

Before I could give him an appropriate answer to his enquiry, the hour drive to the village came to an end as he politely said good bye before we dropped him and his wife off.

The following days, thoughts ran through my head in memory of this conversation.
"How could I organize a solar panel for the school? Why has nobody else given solar panels to the schools yet? Why do things not move forward at the pace that people here would need to overcome their poverty?"

Sitting in the yacht club in Dar es Salaam a few days later and having a few drinks, I got into a conversation with the chief engineer of the largest power plant in the country. "You know," he said, "the government imports diesel to burn in the plant. They don't want solar... they can't make money from decentralized power."

Later that day, I learned that since the government took control over the harbor, off loading times for ships increased from a few days to a month. The demurrage levy on every imported good amounts to an equivalent of an 8 % implicit tax. It seems that a continued dependency on imports is a profitable business not only for the exporting countries.

As Chris' experiences highlight, a key lingering question remains as to how Tanzania can reconcile the pursuit of tax revenues that fund governmental activities in the present with the needs of schools and teachers who are endeavoring to innovatively educate children in order to secure Tanzania’s future.

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