Fraser Chunga from Kapembelwa Village in Mzimba District has been a tobacco farmer all his life. In the routine of his venture, he first procures seeds, prepares a nursery and attends to the crop until it is ripe for harvest.
After harvest comes another phase of picking, grading and packaging the leaf for the market.
He says tobacco farming is not for the faint-hearted and that he was sticking to the crop to make a virtue of necessity.
The toil had been meaningless most of the years as he could not reap enough with which to significantly transform his life.
He could go all year round in production of the crop, together with his brothers, only to be riddled with debt after selling of the crop.
That was until 2018, when he entered into a contract with tobacco buying company Japan Tobacco International (JTI) Malawi.
He says, through contract farming, he was assisted by the company’s extension workers to improve his yield and leaf quality that reflected improved earnings from growing tobacco.
Chunga has since constructed six descent houses and bought cattle and other livestock worth millions of Kwacha, which he could not afford years earlier.
“I have also intensified crop diversification and currently we are able to produce enough maize and vegetables for food and sale,” Chunga says.
Another farmer, David Nyirenda, has become a renowned merchant in Mzuzu City after growing tobacco on contract basic with the company for slightly over a decade.
Since 2010, he has been able to construct four uptown houses that lets out and established a transport company. He has two heavy-duty trucks on top of the tobacco farm.
Nyirenda says following extension workers’ advice and growing tobacco according to what the market demands makes the tobacco-growing business profitable.
“There are a number of issues that JTI has been advising us to improve on. For example, they asked us to improve the welfare of our workers and, together with them [JTI], we have been constructing houses for the employees.
“They also want us to keep records that show any contract transaction. They are also teaching us to establish live barns so that we can protect the environment and be in tune with modern requirements of the trade,” Nyirenda says.
He adds that, during the just ended marketing season, he realised K74 million from the sale of 500 bales of tobacco weighing about 50,000 kilogrammes (kg) harvested from his 17-hectare farm in Mzimba North.
Chunga and Nyirenda are among scores of farmers that work with JTI and are registering economic transformation.
JTI Corporate Affairs and Communications Director Limbani Kakhome says the extension services that JTI provides to farmers have proven essential as the company has been able to procure its targeted quotas year on year.
According to Kakhome, yield per hectare has also improved to 2,200kg from between 700kg and 900kg when the company had just entered the market in the country.
“We have a percentage index we use for measuring quality; farmers are hitting the top ceiling from 75 percent. We used to have defaulters on loans, of about 20 to 25 percent, when yields were low but currently our loan repayment rate is 99.9 percent. Our farmers are generating enough revenue to service their loans without difficulty.
“JTI farmers get the best prices on the market; sometimes 30 cents higher than the market average. This is because of their consistent application of the minimum agriculture standards that we share with them,” Kakhome says.
He adds that the company has continued to support farmers in other aspects of their social life that impact on tobacco production to ensure quality sustainability.
For example, the company has helped farmers indulge in crop diversification with boreholes and solar-powered irrigation systems, constructed classroom blocks to promote education among farmers’ children and constructed village clinics.
To date, the company has constructed 128 boreholes, 210 farmworker houses, 30 classrooms and 16 clinics.
In recent years, debate has been rife on whether the tobacco industry is dying or will remain relevant and continue supporting the local economy.
The crop has for many years been Malawi’s major foreign exchange earner.
In a recent interview, Chief Executive Officer of the Tobacco Commission Joseph Chidanti Malunga said there was no crop, at the moment and in the foreseeable future, that could surpass the contribution that tobacco makes to Malawi’s economy.
“Transformation in the tobacco industry has been misunderstood as signs of a dying industry, particularly portrayed so by the media and other interest groups.
“Tobacco buying countries require environmental, social and governance compliance and tobacco produced free of human rights violations largely to avoid lawsuits. These compliance issues have been mistaken as anti-smoking campaign, but the industry has a future if the country observes religiously such compliance issues,” Malunga said.