Cut through a wattle forest, the dirt track to Lupembe does not afford the visitor from Europe an easy ride. From the nearest main road, it's a three-hour, bone-jarring journey – "an African massage," my companion said – to the heart of Tanzania's tea-growing country.
We were now 13 hours by road from the bustle, humidity and ubiquitous Premier League football shirts of the capital, Dar es Salaam. But despite the remoteness and the poor living standards in the village we visited – where there was limited access to running water and dwellings were built from mud – there were very clear manifestations of a community connected to the wider world. Everyone, it seemed, had a mobile phone and the only visible commercial activity here was based around mobile communication.
Nevertheless, it would be wrong to suggest that the people of Lupembe and those like them – Tanzania has a population of 45 million and the vast majority live in rural communities – have anything other than a rudimentary grasp of what's going on beyond their immediate surroundings. In one of the least urbanised countries on Earth, the concept of regional media does not really exist: there are very few local newspapers and most local radio stations are music-based.
Inhabitants of Lupembe, however, are lucky. The newspaper Kwanza Jamii – or "Community First" in Swahili – was established as part of a charitable organisation in 2010 and it has taken its vocation very seriously. Based in Njombe, the nearest big town, the paper has a mandate to serve the interests of readers in a sizeable and remote catchment area. It circulates anywhere within 60 miles of its main office and this has had very tangible benefits.
The individual tea-growers of the area had long felt exploited by big corporations and were manoeuvred into a disadvantageous position through restrictive contracts and anti-competitive practices. The paper took up their case with a series of campaigning articles. Gradually, things began to change.
In his office – a basic shack whose only decoration on the walls was a licence to serve drink – the village leader told me: "It was the first time we felt people were on our side. We never thought we had any rights, but the stories in the paper gave us the courage to fight."
As a result of Kwanza Jamii highlighting this issue and the new demands of the growers, buyers agreed to a price rise of 20 Tanzanian shillings (1p, or 10 per cent) for a kilo of leaves. As a result, more money has come into the local economy and villagers are now taking it upon themselves to build more water pipes and a new dispensary.
"This has only happened because of the paper," said the village chief.
Kwanza Jamii was set up by Ben Taylor, an urbane, softly-spoken Mancunian who came to Tanzania in 1999 but became dismayed with the way civic life was dominated by petty corruption and a lack of accountability. A disenchanted Taylor resolved to find a way to fight the problem and quickly arrived at the solution: a newspaper. "I realised that if those in authority felt they were being scrutinised, it would be much harder for them to abuse their position," he said.
In 2010, he hatched Kwanza Jamii, with the help of the Tanzania Media Fund, backed by Britain's Department for International Development. The paper, which publishes once a fortnight, quickly earned the favour of its readers (paid-for circulation is around 3,000, but readership is many times more, given the propensity in Tanzania for people to "rent" newspapers by the hour) and the respect of those in authority. Within a year, Taylor had launched a second edition of the paper, based in the more prosperous market town of Iringa. By shining a light on poor practices at clinics, or the misuse of funds directed to schools, or the improper sale of community-owned, the Kwanza Jamii papers have fulfilled their ambition to spur the authorities into action, and to improve the living conditions of the community.
Independent journalism is still in its infancy here – freedom of the press in Tanzania is a relatively recent concept, going back only to the mid-1990s, when the country emerged from the hegemony of a one-party state. I was in Tanzania as a representative of the Journalism Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation established by Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of i, to demonstrate that free journalism is a fundamental plank of democracy and can have a direct and positive effect on people's lives.
Ben Taylor's project proves this beyond argument. We are now working with Taylor and Kwanza Jamii to raise funds in an effort to extend the reach of his papers, to bring community-first journalism to more people in the poorest areas of rural Tanzania, to educate, engage and empower them and, ultimately, to help change lives. For more details on how you can help make a difference, go to thejournalismfoundation.com.