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Contract tobacco growers hit jackpot

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BY CYPRIAN NDAU, A CONTRIBUTOR:

Somewhere in Chilaza Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Kalolo, in Lilongwe lives one tobacco farmer, Madalitso Gibson Nkhwekwe, who has just had preliminary sales of his tobacco.

Nkhwekwe is always in jovial mood, which does not surprise anyone in the village who knows what the farmer’s initial tobacco sales fetched at the market.

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Hearing Nkhwekwe telling his success story, one is left with an impression of a happy and satisfied farmer who has found contract farming more rewarding than one would expect.

“I have all reasons to smile because what I have reaped from my first tobacco sales this season is what any farmer would envy me for,” explains the farmer who has been in contract farming with JTI for six years.

“From 34 bales of the first lower-leaves (kammaondo), I have fetched enough to settle my loan with JTI and enough to pay half-down for my labour force – and that’s not a mean achievement considering the prices kammaondo is traditionally known to fetch,” he continues.

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Nkhwekwe’s 34 bales of kammaondo were of very good quality, properly graded and, due to the high yields, he was able to produce, the returns he got out of this tobacco were very favourable.

The picture gets more interesting when one learns that, having fully settled his loan with JTI using the proceeds from the traditionally low-rated kammaondo, the proud farmer has over 70 more bales of regular leaf to sell.

Nkhwekwe is not the only farmer riding on the success of contract tobacco farming: the situation is common across the country where farmers grow the green gold under contract.

Two of such farmers are Griffin Chinjoka Mkandawire of Sisavingiso Club, and Christopher Mazaza Gondwe of Zutwe Club in Rumphi District they have had a share of the ‘miracle sales’ from their leaf.

Like the proud farmer of Chilaza Village in T/A Kalolo in Lilongwe, Mkandawire and Gondwe have had their loans with JTI off their backs just with the initial sales, leaving the much-awaited sale of the quality leaf as profit.

“To be honest, JTI has, over the years, continued to reward us for the good quality we produce and coupled with the high yields we are able to attain, our tobacco is creating a very uncommon trend of being able to repay your loans from the first lower leaf offers,” Mkandawire says.

“I’ve repaid my loans and paid all my workers with only 24 bales and I’m remaining with about 80 bales of high-quality upper leaf which I’m yet to take to the market,” he continues, a proud smile washing over his face.

On the other hand, Gondwe has had 36 bales of his lower leaf sold and the farmer proudly awaits the bigger kill as he takes the remaining ‘cream’ of the green gold to the floors.

Gondwe, Mkandawire, Nkhwekwe and hundreds of other farmers under contract farming have not achieved all this with their hands down: it results from the farmers’ adherence to technical advice they get from JTI’s extension workers, popularly known as leaf technicians.

“Through contract farming or what you know as Integrated Production System (IPS), we have access to a pool of competent extension workers who really know their job and they work closely with us right from the nursery to the field and throughout to the barn,” Gondwe explains.

He continues: “If you pay attention and follow their advice to the letter, the end product is exactly what the company looks for and they offer you the desired price in return.

According to the farmers, JTI, through its extension workers, provides its contract farmers with all necessary materials including the right varieties of tobacco seeds.

But while most growers bask in the glory of wealth like this, there are some who return home from the market with sullen faces due to low prices their tobacco fetches at the market.

The three growers this writer interviewed separately agree that low prices of tobacco mostly arise when the tobacco was poorly graded or when non-tobacco related materials (NTRM) are found in the bale.

“Some farmers put tobacco of low quality beneath that of high quality in one bale hoping that the buyer will be misled and offer a higher price thinking the quality of the leaf on top is the same below,” Gondwe explains.

“But this is a very bad practice because even with just one low quality sheath of tobacco amid high quality tobacco, the price you get for the entire bale is that of the lowest quality and it is very painful to the grower,” he continues.

Nkhwekwe is more direct in his remarks on cheating when baling tobacco: “Tobacco growers ought to know clearly that, for every NTRM found in the tobacco, it is the farmer who pays the cost by the end of the day.

“We, as tobacco growers, should always be there to monitor every stage the leaf undergoes before it is taken to the floors for sale to ensure that quality is not compromised.”

JTI Corporate Development Director, Limbani Kakhome, recently told Members of Parliament who toured the company’s premises that IPS has greatly helped the country produce the leaf sustainably and has significantly addressed issues of NTRM and mixing of tobacco of different grades.

“Tobacco business is three dimensional: there is the farmer, the buying company and the consumer,” he explained: “If NTRM is not checked to the very end, it’s the consumer who will be affected.”

“This will in turn affect the buyer who may consider stopping buying the leaf and it is the farmer who will suffer most in this case.”

Kakhome said IPS has helped improve the working relationship between the tobacco buyer and growers, such that the product the grower produces is that which the consumer needs and the reputation of Malawi as a key tobacco producer on the international market is guaranteed.

He said: “Every grower is visited by a leaf technician at least nine times in a year – to supervise and ensure that best agriculture labour practices are followed and the tobacco we buy is produced in a sustainable manner.”

According to Kakhome, we as the current season promises to be successful given the feedback the company continues to get from its contract farmers, like Nkhwekwe, Mkandawire and Gondwe.

“JTI, are always happy to see growers’ lives change for the better and it gives us satisfaction when we see and hear our growers give testimony of how tobacco farming has made them prosperous; this tells us one thing: we are realising our goal,” Kakhome explains.

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