Forty-seven-year-old Shadreck Kabwinja, who comes from Zindo Village, Traditional Authority M’bwatalika, in Lilongwe District has since 2002 been growing tobacco as a cash crop and such other crops as maize for consumption.
For a greater part of the period, Kabwinja has been in a contract with one of the buying companies, JTI Leaf Malawi.
In 2015, the company started offering him inputs—for alternative crops like maize— including fertiliser and seeds on loan as part of the contract.
But at the onset of this season, Kabwinja had a rude awakening when officials from JTI Leaf Malawi told him the firm was barred by law from offering loans for inputs of alternative crops except tobacco.
This is stipulated in Section 45, Subsection 3, of the Tobacco Industry Bill which was passed by Parliament in 2019 after close to 14 years of consultations.
“This provision is not there to help us but to rob us of the power to farm maize comfortably and we want government to look at it again and allow us to choose for ourselves because most of us want the inputs,” Kabwinja laments.
To him, the law which was crafted sorely to bring sanity to the tobacco industry and ensure that farmers reap the most of the toil is doing the contrary.
His sentiments were echoed by Zone Leader for Kanyerere Mpingu, Shadreck Pondamali Banda, who said he is not sure if farmers in the zone will be able to produce maize for consumption.
To contracting companies such as JTI Leaf Malawi, the move is costly as it had already purchased fertiliser worth $600,000 ready for distribution at K25,000 per bag to farmers.
JTI Director of Communications and Corporate Affairs Limbani Kakhome said the firm was working on modalities towards addressing the concern.
“Growers should have the freedom to choose whether or not to be provided with inputs for alternative crops because the commission’s mandate is to promote crop diversification but this section impedes on this mandate,” he said.
The is one of the glaring areas in the new law, propelling debate for a quick review, just less than two years after its passing.
The government has admitted that pressure has mounted for a relook at the law to meet its intended purpose of brining sanity in the industry, which for years, has remained Malawi economy’s mainstay as tobacco brings more forex into other country than the rest of other cash crops.
Ministry of Agriculture spokesperson Graciun Lungu said in an interview that all is set for Parliament to deliberate an amended Tobacco Industry Act in its next meeting.
“We have heard the cry of farmers and, as a listening government, we have proposed an amended law which, among other things, will give farmers a choice either to have the inputs or not,” he said.
Growers’ representative body, Tobacco Association of Malawi (Tama) Trust, said law is not answering all concerns farmers have on the supply chain.
Tama Trust President Abiel Kalima Banda said stakeholders should get back to the round-table to iron out concerns raised.
“We want the law to be amended and we should be involved in amendment processes because farmers are the main stakeholder,” Banda said.
Tobacco Commission spokesperson Telephorous Chigwenembe said the industry regulator was receiving complaints from farmers and other players in the industry, calling for changes to some of the provisions of the law.
He said the commission was scrutinising the complaints.
When all is said and done, it would be easy to conclude that what was meant to bring sanity in the tobacco industry, the Tobacco Industry Bill, needs some further sanitisation.
Justin Mkweu is a fast growing reporter who currently works with Times Group on the business desk.
He is however flexible as he also writes about current affairs and national issues.