In the nineteenth century the Chagga were cultivators and cattle keepers. They grew many types of bananas, which were their staple food. Bananas are generally male property but are (with permission) traded by women in the markets. The Chagga also grew millet, maize, beans, finger millet ( Eleusine corocana ) , cassava, sweet potatoes, yams, sugarcane, paw paws ( Carica papaya ) , pumpkins, squashes, and tobacco. Many of the annual vegetable crops were grown by women and were women's property. The Chagga made (and continue to make) beer out of bananas and eleusine. In most of the populous parts of the mountain, a few stall-fed cows were kept by each household. In areas where there was more pasture, large herds of cattle were grazed. Some men owned considerable numbers of animals, but others had none. Milk was a highly valued food, as was meat. Local lineages held slaughtering feasts several times a year. There was a system of cattle lending whereby many households tended animals that were not their own. In return for caring for an animal, the borrower received the milk and the manure and, eventually, when the animal was slaughtered, was entitled to a portion of the meat. Lineage slaughtering feasts are still held today, both to coincide with major life-cycle rituals and on more ordinary occasions.
In precolonial times, in addition to production for domestic consumption, the Chagga produced food, animals, and other items for trade and tribute. Having no domestic source of iron or salt, nor an adequate supply of clay, the chiefdoms of Kilimanjaro were dependent on trade with neighboring peoples for these essential materials. They needed iron for weapons and agricultural tools, salt and clay pots for cooking. Allusion has been made to the local regional and long-distance trades in which the Chagga were actively involved in precolonial times. Warfare also played an important role in the precolonial economy. War yielded booty for the winners and often was the basis for the exaction of tribute from the losers. Moreover, the protection of traders and trade routes had military aspects.
In the colonial and postcolonial periods, the economy has changed drastically. The cropping of coffee, the advent of land shortage, the development of many small businesses, and the inflow of the wages and salaries of the many Chagga employed on and off the mountain have altered the local economic picture considerably. A subsistence dimension of the banana-vegetable-animal domestic economy persists in the household gardens, but it operates in an entirely different context from that of former times. Like banana plants, coffee bushes are male property. Access to cash is thus much more restricted for women than it is for men, even though women do more of the agricultural and domestic labor and bear the fundamental responsibility for feeding the household.
In precolonial times land was regarded as male property, inherited patrilineally by males from males or transferred inter vivos by males to males. Widows and women in other relationships to men could occupy, hold, and use land but could not obtain a transferable interest. That pattern of landholding continues, although, formally speaking, the law has changed.