The most basic way to cultivate soya beans for most subsistent farmers whose income takes ages to caress their hands is very low compared to the basic way to cultivate tobacco on production cost.
Let us start with a soya farmer who is farming at a very basic level to sell or consume the product.
They only need land which most people already inherited from their forefathers in most villages in Malawi, farming equipment which is just a hoe and seed which most subsistent framers get from either Affordable Input Programme or from previous year’s produce.
On the other hand, a tobacco farmer will have to spend enormously and sweat even at the very basic level of their farming.
Apart from land, farming equipment and seed, a tobacco farmer will have to put extra effort, especially at the nursery level, and, again, whether they like or not, the farmers will need fertiliser.
By the aforementioned comparison, tobacco is more involving and expensive in terms of production cost than soya beans but as of now prices are competing with each other if taken for the quality of basic production of the commodities.
Since the opening of the tobacco market, while quality leaf is able to fetch above $2 (approximately K1,650 at current exchange rate) per kilogramme (kg), other leaves hover around 90 cents (approximately K743) per kg which is at par with soya prices as Times has discovered that soya across the country is being bought from growers at between K700 and K850 per kg.
One buyer of the commodity in the outskirts of Lilongwe, who did not want to be identified, said the prices are being pushed by market trends and pointed out that the prices may continue rising.
“I tried to buy the commodity at K600 per kilogramme but no one came to sell to me because my friends were buying at K700 per kilogramme, so I had to adjust and with the scramble for the commodity, I foresee prices continuing on the rising trend,” he said.
Apart from reduced effort and less costly compared to tobacco, Grain Traders and Processors Association Chairperson Grace Mijiga Mhango said the commodity attracts more local demand than tobacco because of its many uses.
Mhango said even if it is not exported, soya can be used locally for cooking oil or porridge flour and soya pieces as the paramount use while at the same time it can be processed to animal feed unlike tobacco whose use in the country is limited.
She said prioritising soya as the main cash crop in place of tobacco will be a good idea because the demand will always be there and prices can easily be controlled than tobacco.
“The future for soya is brighter because demand is huge even locally because of oil manufacturers, animal feed and porridge flour and, apart from that, this year in particular, people who depended on Russia and Ukraine for oil raw materials such as sun flower will start diverting towards soya which we can supply,” she said.
Figures from Ministry of Agriculture on crop estimates show that between this farming season and the preceding farming season, soya production is expected to increase while tobacco will dwindle.
According to the figures, soya production during the 2020-21 farming season was expected to be 264,497 metric tons during this season an incase of 42 per cent while tobacco sold during the 2020- 21 farming season was 123.6 million kgs and this farming season, production is expected to drop by 16.87 per cent to 102.8 million kgs.metric tons and 323,386
While admitting that soya can be the new leading cash crop, agriculturalist Leonard Chimwaza said a research should be conducted to establish what has caused the demand and how production can be controlled so that prices remain elevated.
“Last year, for example, we exported a lot of soya and what does that mean? Does it mean our sister countries are no longer producing soya? If that is the case, what if they start producing more? Will the Malawi soya still be on high demand?
“We, therefore, need to have a thorough research on what is causing this demand and capitalise on that; otherwise, with the current demand, we will see production increasing and we may end up having more supply than demand and prices will drop,” he said.
Tobacco has been on the downward trend in terms of production and foreign exchange earning to which some believe is because of the anti-smoking lobby as championed by World Health Organisation while Tobacco Commission (TC) is of another view.
TC Chief Executive Officer Joseph Chidanti Malunga said earlier Malawi just need to follow EU due diligence laws in cultivating tobacco and produce more tobacco and the future for tobacco is still bright.
Last marketing season, the green gold brought into the country close to $200 million (approximately K165 billion) after the marketing season while according to exports that were accounted for, soya brought a meagre $50 million (about K41.2 billion).
National Planning Commission (NPC), however, said the product may have brought more just that there is no structured market that can be used to account for the returns unlike tobacco which has tobacco auction floors.
A policy brief from NPC shows that there still exists a significant barrier to farmers seeking access to formal markets and get exploited by middlemen which hampers the growth of commercial agriculture, hence a recommendation for a harmonised and structured market.
NPC Communications Specialist Thom Khanje said the greater good is in structured markets.
“A structured market addresses the interests of various parties not just traders. It addresses the interest of government, most importantly the interests of farmers and other stakeholders, so we should not look at one-party interests but the interest of other players as well,” Khanje said.
Speaking during the opening of Mzuzu Auction Floors Monday, Minister of Agriculture Lobin Lowe admitted that in terms of production cost, soya is less costly than tobacco but leaned towards tobacco on benefits to the economy.
“Others may feel let me grow soya because it is simple but when we talk of high-yielding crops, tobacco will remain a high value crop with a well-organised market,” he said.
As Malawi continues to be a predominantly importing-and-consuming nation and government sweating over what can add to the export base and narrow trade deficit, is soya proving to be one of the answers?
It rests upon government to do proper research and have commodity exchange market to realise what Malawi is lacking.