Mtwara was first developed after WWII by the British as part of the failed East African Groundnut Scheme to alleviate a postwar shortage of plant oils. Grand plans were made to expand Mtwara, then an obscure fishing village, into an urban centre of around 200,000 inhabitants. An international airport and Tanzania’s first deep-water harbour were built and the regional colonial administration was relocated here from Lindi. Yet, no sooner had this been done than the groundnut scheme – plagued by conceptional difficulties and an uncooperative local climate – collapsed and everything came to an abrupt halt. While Mtwara’s port continued to play a significant role in the region over the next few decades as an export channel for cashews, sisal and other products, development of the town came to a standstill, and for years it resembled little more than an oversized shell.
Natural gas reserves were discovered in the area in the 1980s. Commercialisation began in 2006, attracting high hopes for an economic boost for the city. Yet, a decade later, the controversial construction of a pipeline to Dar es Salaam removed much of the hoped-for gas business, and Mtwara today remains a relatively quiet town.