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Fading hope in tobacco business

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By Vincent Khonje:

CALLED ON STAKEHOLDERS TO FIND SOLUTION —Nkusa Nkhoma (left)

A small holder farmer, Loyce Nyirongo from Makanda Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Mwase in Kasungu, used to toil all year in her tobacco farming.

This is the crop that many in the Central Region district associate with prosperity and wealth.

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Nyirongo hoped that she would earn a lot from the green gold after taking her leaf to Chinkhoma Action Floors.

She grows her tobacco under the Integrated Production System where farmers are directly contracted by buyers and provided with extension services and inputs and then companies commit to buy pre-determined volumes from them.

Under this contract farming, one’s expectation was that the tobacco farmer would enjoy exclusive and quality extension services thereby having very good leaf that could potentially do well on the market, but for Nyirongo it was a different story.

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Of the 13 100-kilogramme bales that she sent to Chinkhoma Floors, only nine were sold and four were met with a label written RG meaning ‘return to grower’.

Nyirongo does not have the faintest idea of what to do with the rejected leaf.

She recalled the hassles from the nursery to the field, from the field back to home for processing and from home to the tobacco market.

“I have made this horrible loss from my hard work. I just don’t know why the other bales have been rejected,” she lamented.

The farmer now remains with the uphill task of getting the bales back home from the auction floors.

“I will just use the tobacco as manure, what else can I do with it?” she said glumly.

Another farmer, Makanda Phiri from Linga in the same area, had a similar experience of having some of his tobacco rejected by the buyer. Out of 28 bales, only six were sold.

Phiri said there was nothing he could do with the rejected leaf and that it would remain at the floors.

The problem of rejected tobacco bales has hit hard mostly those who are not on contract farming.

An irate farmer, Steven Chinangwa from Madisi in T/A Chakhaza in Dowa, has no kind words for this year’s tobacco market.

He says out of 10 tobacco bales he brought to the market, only five were sold and that the other five returned.

Chinangwa was puzzled that with the same quality of tobacco, one farmer sells while the other sees his leaf being rejected.

“For those on contract, it is at least better off, but for us not on contract it is worse,” he said.

The 2020 tobacco marketing season has revealed a strange phenomenon as for the first time tobacco under contract farming has been rejected in devastating numbers as compared to previous years.

AHL General Manager, Graham Kunimba, believes there is need for a solution to help the affected tobacco farmers.

“We are planning to keep the rejected bales up until the end of the market and convert those numbers to the auction system so that we sell through auction system. Farmers can at least earn a little something from these rejected bales,” Kunimba said.

He was baffled that the quality of the tobacco being rejected was not different from that which the buyers accepted.

Tobacco Commission (TC), which regulates the tobacco industry, says it had taken note of the issue and was equally surprised that farmers have gone through such experiences with their crop.

TC says buyers are saying the rejection rate borders on the issue of quality while the farmers on the other hand claim their product is not substandard.

TC Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Levi Phelani, said the commission would be engaging buyers to appreciate the whole issue.

During her recent visit to Chinkhoma Floors, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Agnes Nkusa Nkhoma, expressed concern over the high rejection rate.

She stated that tobacco production is arduous and that growers must be sufficiently remunerated for their toil. She assured the farmers that government would look into their concerns.

“All stakeholders have to sit down and find a solution. All farmers are complaining. Those on contract and those not on contract have similar problems,” Nkusa Nkhoma said.

Nevertheless, there are tobacco buying companies that have done well in terms of buying the leaf from farmers.

For instance, JTI Leaf Malawi has registered a slightly lower rejection rate than last year and at Chinkhoma market it has rejected only 1.36 percent of the tobacco that was brought before it.

Growers were still able to sell after they re-handled the tobacco.

JTIs Corporate Affairs and Communications Director, Limbani Kakhome, said for their contract farmers there was good tobacco this year and farmers even got better prices.

“This was as a result of good agricultural practices and quality extension services,” Kakhome said.

And as farmers prepare for the next tobacco growing season, their hope lies in the decisions that can be made if stakeholders meet, otherwise, they may just experience the same thing next year.

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