By William Kumwembe:
Being a tobacco farmer is troubling enough, but being a female tobacco grower is nothing short of punishment.
In Malawi, where, tobacco remains the top export crop, production is dominated by men.
So, because numbers count, female tobacco producers seem to struggle to make their voices audible in the production chain.
At the foot of some hills in Zilinga Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Chikulamayembe, in Rumphi District, 28-year-old Mary Botha toils throughout the year to make ends meet in the industry.
Botha is among a handful women producing tobacco, known in the native language as hona, in the area,.
She dropped out of school in 2011, married and got divorced in 2014, a situation that forced her into what she rates as an unchartered route for women; tobacco farming.
“I started producing tobacco as a means of survival after the divorce, but the going has not been as smooth. I find it challenging to follow through the entire process, from production to selling as it is labour-intensive. I only ably handle it because my brother helps me through,” says Botha, mother of a four-year-old son.
She says, after toiling through the entire tobacco production cycle, she faces another unwelcome task— covering the over-108- kilometre stretch to monitor her tobacco at the Mzuzu Auction Floors.
The cost of transportation is also a yoke, she says, always risking her chances of earning the most out of her toil.
She claims some transporters, an important stakeholder in the tobacco-selling chain, have been profiteering on her inability to regularly travel to Mzuzu City to follow up.
But the story seems to have taken a positive turn for her this season onwards.
At the start of the season, tobacco market operator AHL Group opened a tobacco receiving centre at Mwazisi, along eight others in hard-to-reach rural areas to facilitate easy flow of the leaf to main auction floors.
This has given farmers like Botha a chance to ensure remote booking and easy transportation of tobacco to traditional selling points.
The system has helped farmers like Botha save time and costs, according to AHL Group.
Farmers are able to remotely access seller-sheets for their tobacco and other information and services they would access at the auction floors.
Using a mobile phone code, farmers can also track the flow of their tobacco to the market.
Both a says, prior to introduction of the centre, she could spend more money on transportation per bale owing to extra charges which transporters impose on farmers.
Previously, tobacco bales would be dispatched directly to the auctions where the waiting periods are longer and the leaf is exposed to external elements such as rain and sunshine.
In some cases, tobacco growers lamented loss of, or damage to, their tobacco bales, sadly with no one to hold to account.
She says, in some instances, by the time the leaf would reach the market, some tobacco would be damaged and lost due to poor handling and management.
“Now with these receiving centres, we are confident that we would maximise on profit because the cost of transporting the leaf to Mzuzu Auction Floors has come down. We are only paying what we are required by the regulator, no extra charges,” Botha said.
Another farmer, Chimwemwe Gondwe, of Chiunduke Village in the same area, who has been growing tobacco since 2007, spoke highly of the system.
She says, previously, expenses were high, unlike now— when the cost is low, which gives them ample time to concentrate on other productive areas of the supply chain.
She said, upon reaching the centre, tobacco is ferried to the aution floors within two or three days.
The Mwazisi centre has capacity to hold over 400 bales and, from May to date, the centre has facilitated flow of nine trucks of tobacco worth 400 bales each to the Mzuzu Auction Floors.
Mzuzu Auction Floors Manager, Happy Mugala, said the system had proven to be effective.
“With opening of the receiving centres, several challenges have been minimised. With our initiative, the transport cost is only legitimate and accepted by the industry as a whole; there are no extra charges imposed by transporters,” Mugala said.
He said AHL planned to open other centres across the country.
AHL Group Public Relations Manager, Teresa Ndanga, says the system brings comfort to all tobacco farmers.
However, to women farmers, it is a game-changer.
“When farmers sell within a short of time, it helps us to save on tobacco market management costs and also help them make the most of time in the production chain,” she says.
At the beginning of this season, AHL Group opened centres at Mhuju, Mbalachanda, Kanjuchi, Mwazisi and Lufita to facilitate remote booking and easy transportation of farmers’ tobacco to the Mzuzu Auction Floors.
The Group is also operating centres at Bowe, Majiga, Mtengowanthenga and Ngwangwa under the Lilongwe Auction Floors and Mzama and Manjondo under Chinkhoma Auction Floors.