The foundation of recent science, technology and innovation (STI) policy in Tanzania lay in providing the ‘proper’ conditions for encouraging investment in agriculture. The authors argue that imagining activities in tea research as ‘tinkering’ helps to explain the learning processes and gaps in STI policy. Detailing how the tea industry tinkers with investment in the sector in a process of learning by using, how international networks influence formal learning, and how learning by interacting produces incremental innovations in practice demonstrates this point. Drawing on Kuhlmann et al.’s (2010) three dances, the authors show that there is a dominance of theory, but not a dominance of theoretically driven results. Rather, the actors are tinkering with the opportunities at their disposal to create spaces for progress on policy indicators that do not always align with the theory that drives them. As a result, the authors see a government failure where the practices of technology adoption and innovation are not taken up in systematic ways. However, they argue that it is more appropriate to speak of tensions, rather than failures, as the situation also provides opportunities. By drawing upon insights from the notion of tinkering, the authors contribute to the critiques of STI policy that are raised within Tanzania.