Propped up to adore tobacco
A massive barn bearing green and brown tobacco leaves stands prominently on the western edge of Moffat Benitala’s home sited deep in Mchinji West.
A similar, but smaller shelter, shaky and empty, stands outside a vast tobacco field, its free floor providing a favourable space for chickens, goats, ducks and pigs to relax.
The two structures denote a transition that Benitala has gone through in his tobacco farming which spans over three decades.
“The smaller one was enough five years ago. I had slowed down on tobacco production due to the little profits that I was realising from my toil, otherwise I had a bigger shed before,” Benitala says.
Today, the new barn which covers roughly half the width of a football pitch, is filled with cautiously cared-for tobacco, waiting to be air-cured before it can be packaged for the market.
The past four years, similar volumes have earned for Benitala 500 times more than what he used to make before. “After all the strenuous toil in my tobacco fields and all processes for the leaf to be ready for sale, I would sometimes make a profit of K10,000. Now, I am able to make profits of up to K5 million,” says the 62-year-old father of five. He goes on to disclose that his family used to share a small house with its grass thatch sitting delicately on raw bakedbrick walls.
All that has changed and he has the confidence to bring into his family another member whose welfare is basically in his hands.
“I am paying school fees for my sister’s daughter who is in secondary school. Before five years ago, I was failing to pay school fees for my own children,” Benitala states with calculated self-belief. His tobacco business turnaround was something others had already started experiencing in his neighbourhood.
As their households gradually rose from poverty to plenty, he began to accept that there was something that he was missing and he vowed to pursue it, he says.
“I had heard about Integrated Production System [IPS] before but I didn’t really believe it would change my family’s fortunes. Of course, I desperately needed anything that would bring the change.
“When you have been involved in tobacco production all your life and you have not really reaped what you think should have come from your toil, it is difficult to trust that any other form of redemption would come your way,” Benitala explains.
Four years ago, he struck a production deal with tobacco buying company Alliance One in a bid to try whether anything new would come from his old farmstead. It paid dividends right from the beginning. “I built a modern house and I am able to pay my workers well and in time.
On average, my children have everything they need in school,” Benitala brags.
The contract with Alliance One, where he is propped up throughout the production process, allows him to sell his leaf in a structured manner without significant threats of rejection.
“Since they train us on how to properly take care of our leaf all the way from the nursery to packaging, the quality is always good,” he says.
His story mirrors that of another tobacco farmer, Yohane Justin, who has managed to buy an oxcart, a motorcycle and seven heads of cattle using tobacco proceeds.
“The arrangement with Alliance One is such that we also work in groups where we share best practices in tobacco production. It works,” Justin says.
In the groups, they also regularly remind each other about the hazards of using children in tobacco production and the benefits of diversifying their farming enterprises and taking care of the environment.
Alliance One Corporate Affairs Officer (Malawi), Ben Kaonga, raves over the outcomes from the agreements the company strikes with tobacco farmers in various parts of the country. “We provide them with inputs and relevant services and they provide us with tobacco. That is why we also feel obliged to engage in various projects in their communities. They are our crucial partners.
“For instance, we build school blocks, provide clean water, undertake environmental conservation initiatives and support healthcare facilities in the communities,” Kaonga says.
As children stay away from tobacco production, they return to school where numbers rise again. It is a common scenario in most tobacco growing communities where the scramble for classroom space becomes more pronounced.
“Constructing classroom blocks is important in ensuring that the children have no excuse for staying away from school,” Kaonga says.
Benitala and Justin have embraced the ideals of avoiding the use of children in tobacco production, a thing they state they did not consider serious in the past. Justin says: “Until they are 18 years old, no one is supposed to be involved in tobacco production. We agreed to abide by this requirement the moment we sealed our agreements with Alliance One. Children have to be protected.”
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