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Farmers weep as tobacco law threatens livelihoods

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MWALE—We will suffer

Aaron Mbewe, of Traditional Authority Mwase in Kasungu District, was born in 1984.

Born in an agrarian family, Mwase was raised as a farmer but ventured into serious commercial tobacco farming at the age of 33 in 2015.

Mwase engaged in contract farming for seven years with one of the country’s tobacco buyers, Japan Tobacco International (JTI), which was giving him inputs for both tobacco and alternative crops such as maize.

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“When I was being given both inputs, I was assured of money from tobacco and, apart from that, I was assured of food security because the firm was giving me inputs for tobacco and maize production,” he said.

Mbewe is, however, afraid that his future in both tobacco and maize farming is in jeopardy at the back of the Tobacco Industry Act of 2019 which, in essence, is supposed to protect them.

The law, conflict

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Section 45(3) of the Tobacco Industry Act (2019) stipulates that, in case of funded contract farming, production of alternative crops may be part of the terms of the contract but the buyer shall not provide inputs for alternative crops.

Under the previous regime, this section of the law was not being fully enforced as tobacco buying companies were being allowed to give contracted farmers inputs for alternative crops.

During the period, when a farmer got, say, fertiliser, the company could deduct money from the proceeds of tobacco sales.

Alternative crops are in two categories; one for commercial purposes where a farmer cultivates them for sale and the other for food security so that a farmer should have enough food. Farmers are worried about the food security part.

When the current administration came to power two years ago, the law was fully enforced and tobacco buying companies have been barred from giving farmers inputs for alternative crops.

Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture and the Tobacco Commission touted the law, indicating that it aims at protecting farmers from heavy debt and exploitation at the hands of tobacco growing companies.

Aside from that, the law poses a threat to food security. It is, in fact, contradicting itself because while Section 45(3) focuses on the cultivation of tobacco only, Section 4(b) encourages cultivation of crop diversification.

“The commission shall regulate and promote the tobacco industry generally and in particular shall promote crop diversification…,” the section reads.

Farmers cry

Farmers, however, feel that, instead of protecting them, the law is hurting them and threatens the production of tobacco for commercial farming and the production of maize for food security.

Moses Kalemba is a 40-year-old farmer from the district of Kasungu and runs Macheka Estate, where he cultivates tobacco on his three hectares piece of land.

From 2005, he was in a contract with JTI.

He indicates that the enforcement of the law has bruised farmers like him because, this year in particular, farmers will not manage to purchase fertiliser because the prices have rocketed.

Kalemba lamented that this will leave farmers food insecure and defeat the government’s purpose of promoting food security.

He said, even in the case of commercial agriculture, farmers will be forced to buy maize whose prices are expected to continue rising.

The farmer feels that there was no wider consultation on the law because they have not complained about loans for inputs of alternative crops.

“We are sad because farming will no longer be easy as, this year, we cannot manage to purchase fertiliser and if nothing happens to the law, farmers will suffer,” he said.

His sentiments were echoed by Mathews Mwale, who is a farmer and Zone Chairperson for Nguzi Zone in the same district of Kasungu.

Mwale said, for the two years that government has been strict in enforcing the law, they have already suffered from challenges such as food insecurity and money generated through tobacco farming has gone into buying maize.

“Just imagine that this is October but we are already food insecure. What will happen when we reach February? The government should know that farming will be heavily jeopardised and will no longer be our backbone,” he said.

The cries of the farmers are but just a drop in an ocean of cries of other contracted farmers scattered across Malawi.

Threat to the green gold, food security

The threat the law poses to food security cannot be overemphasised as tobacco farmers will not be able to cultivate the crop without fertiliser, which is the main input.

The law, however, does not only pose a threat to food security but to the very crop that the country lays its backbone on for comfort as the main export, tobacco.

President for Tobacco Association of Malawi, an organisation representing and advancing the interests of tobacco farmers in the country, Abiel Kalima Banda says the threat to the leaf is two-fold.

Banda is of the view that if government continues enforcing the law, firstly farmers will be forced to divert fertiliser for tobacco to maize fields which will affect the leaf’s quality and fetch low prices in return.

He added that on the second effect, farmers will be forced to sell tobacco to vendors to find money for the purchase of maize which will be a breach of contract farming laws.

“The farmers have never complained of loans burden and we are pleading with the government; please allow tobacco buying companies to give us inputs because the maize helps on the farm, as it is meant for workers and farmers themselves, who achieve food security,” he said.

The fears are shared by one of the country’s tobacco buying companies, JTI, whose Corporate Affairs and Communications Director Limbani Kakhome revealed that growers who are not provided with inputs for other crops divert tobacco inputs to other crops which effectively lowers the tobacco yields, volume, and subsequent quality outcomes of the crop.

Kakhome adds that the use of uncertified inputs such as recycled seed and growers’ low access to extension services and technologies leaves growers prone to poor yields for the complementary crops which subjects growers to the jaws of low income, livelihoods vulnerability and poor coping capacity when subjected to shocks.

He then called for the amendment of the law indicating that alternative crops inputs’ provision is already not mandatory as a farmer has to choose.

“Insinuations that buying companies recover loans of up to 80 percent of the grower’s proceeds are shocking and baseless. Our statistics show that loan deductions amount to 22 percent, excluding non-loan variables like labour and marketing costs. We have made these statistics available to The Tobacco Commission,” he said.

Authorities adamant

The custodians of the Tobacco Industry Act are the Tobacco Commission and Ministry of Agriculture, who have since not showed any interest in changing the law.

TC spokesperson Telephorous Chigwenembe indicated that they have submitted a proposed amendment of the law to the Ministry of Agriculture. However, the amendment seems to be in conflict with what tobacco buying companies want.

“We have submitted proposals that loans for inputs for alternative crops should not be recovered through tobacco sales and it is our hope that it will be maintained,” he said.

On this, however, Kakhome disagreed, indicating that the reason to have inputs deducted from tobacco proceeds is that tobacco markets are the only structured markets in Malawi and are currently one of the few working value chains in terms of providing access to lending.

Chigwenembe’s sentiments were echoed by Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson Graciun Lungu, who said the repealed law will allow farmers to get the loans on choice but deductions should not be made from tobacco sales.

“Relevant stakeholders were consulted only that a law cannot satisfy every stakeholder,” he said.

What is at stake?

Tobacco remains Malawi’s top export earner but its production has been declining over the years due to several factors.

For example, for the 2021- 22 farming season, tobacco buyers wanted to purchase 150 million kilogrammes (kg) of the leaf but the supply was just 95 million kg, making the country to realise less foreign exchange.

The ugly scenes of low performance of tobacco have already been seen, with the scarcity of fuel and medicines due to the shortage of foreign exchange.

Farmers are crying that the law slows down efforts to promote crop diversification, negatively impacts foreign exchange generation, increases food insecurity of approximately 30,000 growers, their employees, and families, places unnecessary burden on government to manage increased cases of food insecurity, causes loss of complementary income for the contracted growers, reduces access to reasonably priced loans for tobacco growers, increases the strain on grower cash flows (to purchase alternative crop inputs), increases the risk of diversion of tobacco fertiliser inputs to alternative food crops, thereby impacting tobacco quality and volume and increasing the risk of tobacco side selling due to decreased food security.

Laws are supposed to protect people and if a law does not conform to such, it is as good as just being removed.

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