On a hot Sunday afternoon, Rodrick Kamowa, 47, arrived home from church to the news that his tobacco—like that of all other growers in the country—would be sold at the auction floors under the watchful eye of a few farmer representatives.
“It devastated me,” Kamowa confesses as he stares at the vast empty field in front of his house. “My fear was that I would not get what my leaf would fetch in normal circumstances.”
The Covid-19 pandemic, which compelled authorities to impose restrictions on the number of people who could be found in one place, meant Kamowa, from Phindwe Village, Traditional Authority Kabudula in Lilongwe Rural, could only wait while at home to hear if his leaf had met the buyers’ expectations.
“There was a lot of anxiety among us, tobacco farmers. It was the first time for me to have my tobacco sold in my absence but, still, I had confidence in our representatives,” Kamowa narrates.
That was in April this year after markets had officially opened across the country.
But just a few days into the marketing season, Kamowa, who started growing tobacco in 2000, realised it would not be a bad year after all.
“My leaf fetched up to $2.50 per kilogramme [kg]. This was one of the highest prices. All my fears that I may not reap what I had sowed melted away. To me, it was one of the most successful seasons ever,” Kamowa says.
He reckons that farmers he interacts with successfully sold their tobacco during the record time of 13 weeks that the market was operational at Chinkhoma, Mzuzu and Limbe auction floors as compared to the 20 weeks during the previous season.
They have a production agreement with JTI Leaf Malawi which bought more than 23 kilogrammes of Burley tobacco, the only variety it sources, from the farmers who were not individually present at the auction floors.
“The truth is that the effort that goes into tobacco production must match with the output in terms of money. I have no qualms at all with what I have earned this year.
“Since I entered into the agreement with JTI eight years ago, the leaf that I produce is of very high quality due to good advisory services and production inputs that I get from the company,” Kamowa says.
He further states that before starting to produce tobacco under contract with JTI, the leaf was of poor quality and would fetch very low prices at the market.
“We could even use ‘traditional’ seed which is not recommended by agronomy experts. Leaf grading itself was very poor. That is no longer the case. Now, we do get all the good-quality materials,” the tobacco grower states.
He hopes that even if the pandemic does not go way, though he would love it if it did, he will continue with his tobacco production business “because there is nothing to worry about”.
JTI Leaf Malawi Corporate Affairs and Communications Director, Limbani Kakhome, hails the company’s contracted growers for supplying what he describes as high-quality leaf.
“We used a scientific index to measure the quality of the leaf for this particular year. Our quality index this year was better than that of last year.
“We can see that contracted growers are continuously endeavouring to adhere to the agronomy advice and are upping their delivery of quality tobacco,” Kakhome says.
According to Kakhome, JTI managed to buy its required volume of Burley in the record 13 weeks by increasing the volume per day in all the four market floors and utilising even Saturdays.
He is optimistic that from the lessons learnt during this year’s tobacco market, if the virus sticks around longer, the next tobacco market will be better than the previous one.
“Like we rose above the challenge and offered optimum prices for the best leaf delivered, we will rise again if the pandemic does not go away,” Kakhome says.
And Kamowa is also not turning back.
He has been working in his tobacco field for weeks on end to ensure that he has good quality leaf to sell to JTI during the next market season.
“History has been my witness. Since I entered into the agreement with JTI, I have managed to buy a car, cattle and motorcycles. I am also able to send my children to school without any problem,” Kamowa states.
Justin Mkweu is a fast growing reporter who currently works with Times Group on the business desk.
He is however flexible as he also writes about current affairs and national issues.