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Expelling tobacco vendors the Santhe way

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They call themselves vendors while others call them middlemen or intermediary buyers. But people in Santhe, Kasungu, call them swindlers – and for ‘good’ reasons.

“Vendors know little or nothing at all about tobacco and all they do is to wait for the farmer to toil in the field for a quality leaf,” explains Group Village Head (GVH) Chipoza of Traditional Authority (T/A) Santhe in Kasungu.

He continues: “When the leaf is ripe, you see them lurking around with weighing scales in their hands ready to reap where they did not sow. They take advantage of the farmer’s lack of money during the lean period and they squeeze themselves into the equation to exploit them.”

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Tobacco vending has for a long time been a serious malaise in the tobacco industry and it has left stakeholders pondering over how best to deal with it.

But with GVH Chipoza and his subjects, time for pondering upon the matter is over. They have enacted a by-law to ban vendors from buying the leaf from farmers in the area and the idea is working wonders.

“On the flipside, the by-law also bans farmers from selling their tobacco to vendors and we are very serious about it,” explains GVH Chipoza, whose real name is Lyford Chipson Mwale.

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He continues: “You know, vendors do not only rob the farmers of their hard-earned green gold, they also mess up the market with their lack of technical know-how in handling the leaf and what gets to the market in the end is a poorly handled leaf.”

According to Chipoza, the idea of putting in place the by-law stemmed from a meeting between two T/As, Santhe and Chidzuma, who were concerned about the influx of vendors in the district.

At the meeting, the two T/As emphasised the need to protect tobacco growers from losing out to vendors who buy the leaf at very low prices and exploit farmers when they are most vulnerable. The vendors buy the leaf at prices as low as K150 to K250 or less, only to rake in dollars at the floors.

Consequently, at the onset of the tobacco market season for 2016/17, Chipoza called his subjects and shop owners and traders at Santhe Trading Centre to a meeting to unveil the by-law.

“To ensure that the by-law is implemented and adhered to, we have put in place a special committee chaired by Eldson Mwale whose role is to monitor that there are no weighing scales hanging anywhere in the area, and that no farmer is involved in any sale of tobacco to vendors,” explains Chipoza.

The GVH’s reasons for booting the vendor out of the equation are perhaps rational as he observes that every stage of tobacco production is as crucial as the next and that only an informed farmer can handle the leaf best from nursery to the market.

Chipoza attributes most rejection rates and low prices at the market to poor handling of the leaf in the hands of the vendors, a situation he says brings loss not only to the farmer but to the tobacco companies and the country’s economy as well.

He explains: “Most of the farmers here in Santhe are contract farmers to companies such as JTI, Alliance One, Limbe Leaf and Premium Tama, and these companies offer technical expertise and extension services to the farmers throughout the tobacco production.

“So the companies know what leaf to expect from the farmers under their contract and when the vendor who has no idea of handling the leaf comes in and messes up the process, the blame goes back to the farmer,” says Chipoza.

Like his GVH, Mwale has no kind words for vendors.

He concurs with Chipoza in describing them as “tricksters who pilfer from the farmers and the company under whose contract the farmers grow the leaf”.

“It is a must that we do away with the vendors because if a farmer is under contract with a tobacco company, there are important obligations by both parties which must be adhered to. In addition, there are also major investments in inputs which need to be secured,” explains Mwale.

He stresses that under his watch as guided by Chipoza’s by-law, no vendor will ever hang a scale in the area to “steal” from the farmers and that any farmer found defying the by-law will face the laid penalties.

But while the two agree that the vendor is the bad link in the chain, Chipoza and Mwale feel there is need for all stakeholders to tackle certain factors that create the gap the vendors utilise to move in.

The two believe that farmers fall prey to vendors due to delay in opening the tobacco market and also due to low prices that are offered from the early days of the market up to June when the prices pick up.

Mwale and Chipoza also feel there is need for tobacco buyers to introduce bridging finance during the lean period so that farmers do not get tempted to sell the leaf to vendors in order to buy essentials.

As the battle continues to expel vendors from the tobacco market circle, year in, year out, poor grading of the leaf and inclusion of Non-Tobacco Related Materials (NTRM) continue to register at the market.

A recent media tour to one of the tobacco buying companies revealed how much NTRM, among them rocks, metal, wood and thread, are found in the tobacco.

The tour also revealed how tobacco companies strive to ensure that no single NTRM gets through into the final product for doing so would cost the companies credibility with their oversees market.

NTRM is also of great concern to government as noted from President Peter Mutharika’s keynote address during the opening of the 2016/17 tobacco marketing season at Lilongwe Floors on April 11.

“As you prepare for the market, I want you to manage your tobacco very well by grading and presenting it properly and ensuring zero tolerance on Non- Tobacco Related Materials and nesting so that you get better prices,” said Mutharika.

When all is said and done, perhaps it is high time traditional leaders and all players in the tobacco industry adopted the Chipoza by-law and run with it.

It is, perhaps, Chipoza’s concluding remarks that knits and hems it together: “The tobacco belongs to the farmer and the buyer. It is the nerve centre of our economy and allowing anyone to mess up with it would be as suicidal as deflating a life jacket in a sinking boat.”

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