Until now, tobacco remains Malawi’s major export crop, and earnings from the leaf contributes substantially to the wellbeing of many households who rely heavily on the crop.
The green gold, as tobacco is fondly called, accounts for two thirds of the country’s foreign exchange earnings. Tobacco is to Malawi what diamonds is to Botswana.
Despite its significant contribution to the economy, the tobacco industry has been blamed, and at times righty so, for contributing to deforestation in the country.
It is an undeniable fact that declining supply of wood to meet growing demand for fuel, building materials and tobacco curing remains a challenge in safeguarding sustainable tobacco production in the country.
Environmental activists warn that deforestation has a huge cost on the environmental – including loss of biodiversity, soil erosion, siltation and degradation, water pollution and increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Related to tobacco production, flue-cured and fire-cured tobacco place the heaviest demands on fuel wood, while air-cured tobacco such as burley, has lesser demand than flue cured but still requires wood resources for construction poles, roofing material and curing sticks and racks.
If nothing is to be done to arrest the vice, Malawi stands to suffer and lose the very industry that sustains its economy.
Over the recent years, JTI Leaf Malawi Limited – one of the country’s leading buyers of the leaf, has taken decisive measures to reduce growers’ dependence on natural forests for construction of curing barns. It is promoting sustainable agricultural practices and technologies that are meant to safeguard the environment.
Among other things, the company has taken a leading role in promoting the use of live barns – a farming technology that uses growing and living trees to construct a tobacco curing barn.
A live barn is a set of trees planted in a format where a tobacco barn will eventually stand. Once the trees are fully grown, a barn is established. This is an investment that is realised after 3 to 4 years.
Tobacco farmers are already benefiting from the initiative, which is contributing to the conservation of the natural environment by decreasing the pressure on natural wood sources as well as improving the livelihoods of growers.
In the long run, restoration and maintenance of tree cover will improve soil properties and provide for better water balance in wet and dry seasonal cycles.
Paul Makina, a farmer from Chinkhwiri Area in Chimungu Zone in Dowa says that while the ultimate goal of live barns is to reduce the pressure exerted on natural forests which comes as a result of demand for barn construction materials, growers also accumulate huge benefits from use of live barns.
Makina says once a farmer plants a live barn, the facility can be used for many years thereby reducing costs a grower incurs to construct a barn annually.
“From the 2019/20 growing season, I saved over K300, 000 on poles and curing sticks. I have used this money to pay fees for my son who is studying at the Mzuzu University,” he says.
Jalimoti Rabson Paulo, a 48-year-old tobacco grower from Mndima Village in Traditional Authority Dzoole has five live barns. Three of the barns are already in use.
JTI Leaf Malawi Limited Director of Corporate Affairs and Communications, Limbani Kakhome, says the tree planting programme is part of the company’s strategic contribution to sustainable business.
He says the company wants to make all its farmers self-reliant.
“A live barn eventually stops farmers from cutting trees annually to get poles for barn construction. This conserves the environment while at the same time, reducing production costs and ultimately increasing farmer profitability,” Kakhome said.
He says his company’s approach to the live barn programme offers both short and long term benefits to growers and this has made the adoption of the concept widely accepted by the growers.
Kakhome adds that his company decided to strengthen the live barn option in order to complement government’s efforts in sustaining the country’s environment, as trees play a crucial role in tobacco production.
As a contractual requirement, all JTI growers are now growing live barns in proportion to the number of hectares they use in tobacco production. One hectare of tobacco demands one live barn which consists of 213 trees.
The company has intensified dry planting of trees among its growers in order to give every tree a better chance of survival.
Currently, tree seedlings are in the nursery and will be ready for transplanting in September and October this year, despite the period being a dry season.
“JTI Leaf Malawi realises that survival of trees in the dry lands can be enhanced through nurturing of high quality seedlings and hardening of the seedlings. Hence, we have started promoting dry-planting concept to improve survival rates, it was discovered, among others, that immature seedlings contribute significantly to the poor survival rates of the trees,” he says.
The benefits of live barns are many and growers have positively responded to this initiative despite a slow adoption rate at the beginning of the program in 2013. In the next 3 years, no contracted grower will need to use a traditional tobacco barn. Every grower will use their own live barn.