Tobacco farmers are on their own

WORRIED—Zacharia (left) briefing Chakwera Wednesday

At the opening of this year’s tobacco marketing season, one desperate farmer engaged President Lazarus Chakwera on why the crop is failing to attract the same protection in terms of pricing like is the case with others such as maize, beans, soya and rice.

His argument was that while these food crops have had their farm-gate prices significantly elevated this year, the same is not the case with tobacco, which continues to fetch meagre amounts at the floors.

The truth is that tobacco business is so capitalist in nature that the farmer will continue crying for as long as deliberate interventions to protect him are not put in place.


Prices are determined at the whims of buyers and not even Chakwera can say anything about it. No wonder, for years, most farmers have been stuck in poverty and have little or nothing to point at for their toil.

Yet, this is the largest single export crop for the country which has no other sustainable foreign exchange earner.

Just have a chat with farmers in their own backyards and you will shed tears after learning how much they struggle in their tobacco fields only be offered pathetic prices by the buyers.


The buyers will obviously front several reasons for offering the meagre prices to the farmers including that the leaf is not of good quality.

But these are the very same farmers who used to sell the same leaf at considerable good prices in the past before the market slipped into the control of buyers.

The tobacco industry is in shambles because government has abrogated its sacred duty of protecting farmers and can only smile at the exploitation championed by the buyers.

The coming in of contract farming is also apparently pushing most farmers to the edge.

In the process of production, they are assisted with extension services and inputs. When time to sell their leaf comes, some of them return home with nothing because the buyers get everything.

In fact, there are those who even fail to cover all the loans they have with the buyers and end up having their assets confiscated.

Such is the plight of tobacco farmers which authorities have never shown keen interest to address.

During consultations for the Tobacco Industry law, our Members of Parliament seemed very disinterested to hear the real stories of pain from the growers, but spent time touring buyers’ offices and fields, obviously because of the brown envelopes they got.

It is high time we relooked the tobacco industry and reformed it again so that it should not be controlled by buyers at the expense of growers. This is one sector that has undergone umpteen reforms, but there is no harm in doing it again.

There are several elements that compel farmers to remain stuck with tobacco farming, chief among them being that the crop has a readily available market where they can take their produce.

Many of them have expressed willingness to try other crops but are reluctant to take that path because of the absence of structured markets.

There was this time, at the opening of a tobacco marketing season, when Chakwera tasked the Ministry of Agriculture to engage other stakeholders on the possibility of Malawi gradually weaning itself of tobacco.

There was so much passion in the President’s directive that some of us thought finally something transformational was going to happen.

During a subsequent tobacco marketing season opening event, Chakwera avoided talking about exploring other crops so that eventually Malawi no longer relies on the crop as the biggest forex earner.

This was despite that some experts believed that it was indeed possible to stop relying on the crop and that processes towards that goal were supposed to start in earnest.

Today, we are still lamenting about tobacco not benefiting farmers and the country.

In any case, the current predicament surrounding the crop was supposed to act as a skateboard for serious conversations on diversifying our export base and ensuring that farmers are not short-changed in any way.

There are all indications that tobacco will one day have near-zero demand—lower than is the case now—due to several factors including the anti-smoking lobbies.

Are we prepared for such an ‘eventuality’? Obviously, we are not.

Chakwera and his officers must seriously think about what to do to ensure tobacco farmers do not continue crying.

They must take an honest assessment of what would happen if today, the tobacco market completely collapsed. Already, our economy is on its knees.

Of course, we all know that there are other export earners that come into the picture the moment we stop talking about tobacco.

By the way, what happened to revamping mining and tourism to boost their contribution to our gross domestic product?

We have been talking about these sectors for ages, but there is nothing to indicate that we are serious about it.

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