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A challenging cup of tea

A challenging cup of tea

This was originally posted at the IDDS Tanzania blog and is reprinted here with permission. 

Every year at the International Development Design Summit (IDDS) participants form eight teams to work on technical solutions to eight priority challenges across four rural communities. Behind every great project there are community visits by the organising team to develop strong relationships, investigate project potential and hear of the community’s major challenges throughout the year. In Orkilili, a Masai village at the outskirts of Kilimanjaro airport, we spent time with Judith as we heard about her daily routine.

Photo 1
Fabio and Michael walk through the fields with Judith as she shares her story. Kilamanjaro sits just on the horizon.

I looked at the cup of tea that Judith had placed in front of me on the modest wooden table, surrounded by a few tattered sofas, in her living room. In Australia or Europe I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But here, in this rural Tanzania, after all our team have seen and experienced over the past few days, I couldn’t help but think about all it took to prepare this simple cup of tea. There were no less than three major challenges the community face on a regular basis represented by this unassuming hot beverage.

For this cup of tea to be present we first needed milk. Milking poses a few challenges for the Masai in Orkilili – especially during the dry season when the land becomes barren and water is scarce. A proverb in Tanzania says that, “Ngombe akikonda Masai amekonda.” Which translates to,“When the cows become thin the Masai become thin.” Suffice to say that this time of year is not only a challenge for incomes, which rely heavily on agricultural activities, but also for survival.

Luckily, when we visited the cows looked healthy, but the hardest time of the year is yet to come. We asked what happens in lowlands during the dry season when there is no grass for the cows to graze. Judith’s father explained that the children take the cows to the mountains or to graze on neighboring farms for a fee. Both these locations are far and the latter is a drain on financial resources during already testing times. Time and again the heard and land owners lamented, “if only there were a way to store the grass during the dry season.”

Now, when the cows are grazing close by, they are milked twice a day; once in the morning and once in the evening. Masai men often have multiple wives as well as many cows. Both are a measure of wealth and according to Masai tradition it is the responsibility of the women ensure the cows are milked. Judith and her sister-in-law, Angel, set to start their milking duties and beckoned us to join as the sun started to set.

Photo 2
Judith milks one of the five cows – skillfully catching the milk in a plastic container.

Calves are normally kept separately from their mothers in an adjacent pen.  To prepare the cows for milking the women allow the calves in to feed – this softens the cows’ teats and make it easier to milk. Before they are able to satisfy their appetites the calves are pulled from their mothers with a woven sisal rope and secured to a nearby fence. When the mothers follow to protect their offspring they’re now in a position to be milked.

It takes the girls around an hour to milk the five cows. During this hour they collect around seven liters of milk. The next day they will collect only five. The girls complain sometimes of being kicked and the milk being spilt. They only milk enough for their families’ consumption and perhaps a few liters to sell on to nearby neighbours. It’s a time-consuming job for this family of ten – we could only imagine the challenges that would be faced by a family with a larger herd.

Judith and her family sit and talk in the kitchen as they prepare milk for morning tea.
Judith and her family sit and talk in the kitchen as they prepare milk for morning tea.

The second step in making tea is the challenge of heating the milk. Although Orkilili has a reliable and consistent electricity supply, unlike in neighbouring villages, households rely on firewood as their primary cooking fuel. A quick glance over the landscape surrounding the family home reveals few trees and the group enquires, “So where does the wood come from?” A shake of the head comes as the first response from Judith who tsks and replies, “Ah it’s difficult.”

Unsustainable practices for collecting firewood has taken its toll on the land and left families anxious about how they will continue to complete even the simplest of tasks: cooking.

Earlier in the day, we’d spied a group of young girls climbing the trees lining the road toward the village high school. Judith explained that they were collecting firewood. Back at Judith’s home we foraged for smaller sticks to get the fire started but the family are reliant on the purchase of firewood for the bulk of cooking activities. It cost the family 7,000TZS (which equates to $4.20US) for one piece of wood that lasts three days – the equivalent of nine meals for a family of ten. That’s the equivalent of two and a half days income for the average Tanzanian (source: World Bank).

During our interactions and conversations with the community we noted and discussed opportunities for technical improvements. A way to dry and store grass during the dry season so that families can keep cattle grazing close by? Or what about using the manure produced by cattle and agriculture waste as an alternative fuel source for cooking? And low-cost milking technology could certainly reduce the time spent day and night to milk the cows – not to mention the opportunity to reduce contamination.

By the time we’re enjoying this cup of tea I calculate it took Judith and Angel no less than two hours to prepare. The challenges we discovered by investigating the journey of this cup of tea, plus more from other communities, will be framed to create problem statements, which teams willbegin to address in collaboration with the community in the coming month.

Judith in her traditional Masai cloth
Judith in her traditional Masai cloth

Judith is excited about attending the International Development Design Summit this year as a participant to work on solutions to the challenges she, and her village, face throughout the year. When I asked if she was nervous she said, “No, of course not. I am strong Masai lady!” Participants from our partnering communities in Tanzania and from around the world joined in Arushaon the 7th July and will run until August 9th. More updates will be posted periodically on the blog.


Bianca Anderson is a mechanical engineering graduate of Deakin University, Australia and the international organizer and design facilitator at the International Development Design Summit. She’s passionate about appropriate technical solutions; working to develop grain storage solutions at the International Development Design Summit in Zambia 2013; and agricultural technology with the Covenant Centre for Development in Tamil Nadu, India. She’s an energetic ambassador of Engineers Without Borders Australia and has spent countless hours volunteering in their Melbourne head office as well as out in the field. You can reach her at

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