When Malawi’s first president Hastings Kamuzu Banda decided to make agriculture the main stay of Malawi’s economy, he declared tobacco and a few other crops as strategic for the country and put in place all the necessary measures to protect the crops from exploitation.
Tobacco was actually made the key crop for the country and, up to now, Malawi boasts the best policies, regulations and structures for the production, marketing, processing and export of tobacco.
No-one can just wake up and start producing or trading in tobacco without a licence. Even more regulated are exports which can only be done through a strictly regulated structured market.
The Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) is empowered to register and issue permits to all tobacco growers, groupings, buyers and processors while AHL Group provides auction floors for the trading of tobacco. No tobacco can be exported without going through the auction floors.
In addition, we have institutions such as the Agriculture Research and Extension Trust (Aret) which not only conducts research on tobacco but also provides training for field workers required in the tobacco industry.
As a result, Malawi’s tobacco industry is one of the most organised in Africa and it is of no wonder that the business has over the past 52 years ago attracted even multinational companies that have invested in its production, marketing, processing and export as they have full confidence in the crop.
This explains why tobacco has ably supported Malawi’s economy for all these years through not just export earnings but also government revenue as well as jobs for thousands of people in the country.
However, with global tobacco demand on the decline due to increasing anti-smoking lobbies internationally, there is an urgent need for Malawi to find alternative means of fuelling the economy, especially on the foreign exchange earning side.
Unless the country gets into action now, we will wake up one day to find that we cannot even export a leaf of tobacco. And that will be catastrophic for the country.
Malawi cannot afford the mistake made with electricity where we failed to act 20 years when it became apparent that climatic problems will increasingly cause problems to our electricity generation and that there was an urgent need for the country to look for other means of producing electricity beyond hydro.
Today, we are all busy pointing fingers at each other, yet we should have collectively helped avert the situation by pressurising our leaders then to do something about the impending disaster.
Malawi faces a similar, if not even more serious, threat with tobacco and its general foreign exchange earning regime, as a problem of unprecedented proportions will soon emerge unless something is done now to find viable short-term means of earning foreign exchange for the country.
While in the medium to long term Malawi can shift to sectors such as mining, tourism and manufacturing for national production and export earnings, agriculture still offers the best immediate to short-term alternative means of economic and export diversification.
And out of all suggested crops, legume and grain crops such as pigeon peas, soya, groundnuts, beans, rice, sunflower, cow peas and others have shown the highest potential as Malawian farmers already have the experience in the production of the crops while markets are readily available both within and outside the country.
What is required now is for the government to step in and provide appropriate policies and legislation that can support and protect the production and marketing of the crop. It is such polices and regulations that can provide comfort to farmers, processors, exporters, financiers, investors and even international buyers of the crop.
And we do not have to go too far in terms of identifying appropriate means of regulating the crops. We already have the best model put in place for the tobacco industry 52 years ago. We just have to replicate the same for legumes and grain crops by simply making it mandatory for all exports of the same to go through a structured market.
In that way, government will not only protect farmers from exploitative low prices offered by foreign and local traders at local markets around the country. It will also be able to track every dollar earned in the export of the crops, unlike today when container loads of pigeon peas and other such crops are being shipped to India and other countries without a means of checking whether the proceeds come back into the country or not.
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