Jeffrey Phiri has grown to believe that education opens a load of opportunities. He remembers with uneasy hesitation the numerous struggles in his family that blocked his dream of going beyond secondary school.
Today, that vision has been actualised through his two children who have so far obtained bachelors’ degrees from the University of Malawi.
“It was my sincere longing to progress with my education but because of poverty in my family, I failed. I only went as far as Standard Seven,” says the 54-year-old father of eight who later leaped into tobacco farming to meet his own family needs.
The industry is troubled, but for thousands of households across Malawi, there still is growing hope in it.
In Phiri’s vast, flat Ntsukunya Village, Traditional Authority Mulonyeni, Mchinji District, several tobacco farmers are still struggling to earn enough from their labour. And Phiri’s efforts also used to pay minimal dividends because his tobacco farming business fetched less and less profits at the market which had once notably improved the economic wellbeing of his grandparents.
As prices slumped, he made several attempts at other crops whose equally dismal performance pushed him back to tobacco farming.
“It was when I struck a production agreement with Alliance One that I immediately realised huge profits. I had never made such profits in my tobacco farming business and at first, it didn’t look real,” Phiri says.
The tobacco buying company engages its contracted farmers in an arrangement dubbed ‘Integrated Production System (IPS)’ which is said to have the potential of providing more opportunities to ensure stability of production.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation states that IPS can increase profitability by reducing inputs, pollution and waste.
And Phiri attests to this. For the nine years that he has so far been producing his leaf based on the agreement with Alliance One, there is a lot that he is grateful for.
“Alliance One provides those of us on contracts with them with production inputs and extension services.
Thus, the tobacco we are producing is of high quality and consequently fetches more money,” he says as he goes around his tobacco barn to assess the drying process.
His home, a few metres outside a small trading centre along the Lilongwe-Mchinji Road, is a symbol of progress.
It is teeming with livestock of all kinds, all coming from his tobacco business which he says has also helped him build another modern house which he hopes to move into the moment it is completed soon.
And to maintain the agreement with Alliance One, Phiri relentlessly follows the articles that bind the two together.
“We are not supposed to use children under the age of 18 in tobacco production. Instead, I am supporting my children to e in school by providing them with everything that they need. Despite that I did not go far with my education, I still value it and I will do everything possible to support those pursuing it,” Phiri says.
He is also involved in environmental conservation by planting new seedlings every raining season to replenish the trees that tobacco production uses. It is an exercise he faithfully undertakes when its time arrives.
All what he does in line with what is stipulated in his deal with Alliance One excites the company’s Area Field Administrator for Mchinji, Thokozani Huwa, who works with 1,422 farmers of 17 schemes spread across the western-border district.
“Farmers have to meet the conditions for the contracts to stand. They have to avoid using children in production; they are supposed to pay their workers according to the work that they do and ensure the workers are safe,” Huwa explains.
She admits that tobacco, being a labour-intensive crop, often tempts parents to invite their children to assist in production.
“But those working with us cannot do that because that is our agreement in line with our Agricultural Labour Practices programme,” she says.
She is also particularly delighted when she sees farmers moving from one level of their socio-economic status to another after striking production deals with the tobacco buying company.
“More farmers, seeing what their colleagues are earning, keep approaching us so that we can take them on board in our agreements.
But we have to stick to our quota,” Huwa explains. Last year and this year, production quotas for Alliance One’s contracted growers have been pegged at approximately 28 million kilogrammes.
Phiri hopes that the ceiling will be raised further so that more farmers, who marvel at his success and want to pursue a similar path, are given a chance to do so.
“You cannot hide your success. I, personally, believe if there is something that can transform communities, it should trickle to all those who can benefit too,” he says as he continues to tend to his drying tobacco which will soon be ready to rake millions of kwacha for him.
He has previously made profits in excess of K4 million every marketing season and continues to strive for more.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje