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JTI tobacco farmer beats poverty trap

The drive to Nkhawa Village in Traditional Authority Chitukula in Lilongwe could be shorter and less torturous if only the road leading to it was tarred.  But it is not.

Immediately after branching off the main road from the administrative capital, you hit a rugged patch. Dust and grit particles fly in all manner of direction, as if to announce the rough ride ahead. Nkhawa is about 40 kilometres from the Capital City—a distance of about 20 minutes by car—but given the road’s poor condition, you spend about an hour negotiating your way.

The first sign of arriving in Nkhawa village is announced by a seemingly descript roadside grocery. It has the name; ‘Tobacco Farmers Association (Tofa)’ scrawled on top of it. On this day, we find the farmer’s ‘office’ asleep.

The door and windows are firmly shut, not a good sign for the beginning of a new tobacco season. Given the time of year, one would expect the farmer’s ‘office’ to be abuzz with activity as they discuss the passing of the 2014/15 marketing season and prospects for 2015/16.

We pass through a number of grass-thatched hamlets, and outside them, occasionally come across barefoot boys passing the hours on a make-shift plastic ball. Our drive inside Nkhawa Village continues uneventfully and uninterrupted until when a scrawny chicken playfully tries to cross the road in our wake.

With all the dust flying, Stella Masangano my dutiful driver mistakenly adjudges to have crushed the two-legged thing with the balloon tyres of our field vehicle.

She rams on the brake, and the pick-up machine shudders to a halt. But miraculously, the bird has ducked!

Apparently saved only by the ample ground clearing of the vehicle, the cockerel flutters to the other side of the bare field, seemingly delighted to still be alive after pulling its thoughtless prank on our utility 4×4 vehicle.

Soon enough, we enter a homestead surrounded by tobacco barns.  There are plenty of chickens here. But unlike the naughty roadrunner we have encountered earlier, this head is well behaved. It nibbles the sprouts of new grass and searches for the joy underneath without much of a fuss.

“We are there. There is our man,” announces Stella, pointing to a smartly dressed man as we disembark the car.  We find Goliath Kepinasi M’dzibwa sitting inside the shelter of one of the tobacco barns surrounding his home. He has been anxiously waiting for us. After exchanging amiable greetings, we settle for the interview.

“Well, what you see around me are the fruits of my association with JTI,” he starts. “As a contract farmer, I have been able to make  a difference in my life, and in this area,” he says, pointing to the house. M’dzibwa’s house is the only one in this part of the village to wear corrugated iron sheets as roof.

While most of the houses in this area are built with mud and clay, M’dzibwa’s is imposing with burnt bricks. It stands out as a beacon of pride to the M’dzibwa clan as we soon learn that all important visitors to the village are hosted her.

As we sit, M’dzibwa’s cell phone rings. After a few minutes attending to the call, he returns to the interview. “That was my daughter, calling all the way from the ‘City’. She graduated, and now has a job,” announces M’dzibwa, pleased with himself.

M’dzibwa says he has been growing tobacco for 25 years, dating back to 1985. He says the first 20 years was spent toiling as a peasant smallholder farmer. He counts these as the lost years. “It was like hell. My tobacco fetched a pittance because it was always of poor quality.

Some years it would be rejected at the floors, and whenever it passed through the auction, it was low grade as I was told low grade earns low money everywhere in the world,” he says.

At the time, M’dzibwa bore the brunt of poverty. He lived in a grass-thatched house, struggled to put food on the table and had difficulty paying school fees for his children.

It all whittled down to the recent four years for M’dzibwa to notice the difference. It was in 2008 when M’dzibwa went into the books of JTI as a Contract Farmer. Contract farming with JTI has greatly transformed M’dzibwa’s life from poverty to relative prosperity. —INSIDE Malawi Magazine.

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