Zimbabwe’s small-scale farmers are favouring tobacco over maize because they are paid immediately on delivery, while the Grain Marketing Board (GMB), the state-run cereal distribution monopoly, often takes months to pay for the staple, say some small-scale farmers.
The country has suffered consistent bouts of food insecurity since 2000 after President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF implemented its fast track land reform which saw thousands of white farmers displaced, often violently, to make way for landless black Zimbabweans.
Tobacco production - a major foreign currency earner - plummeted from 237 million kg in 2000 to 49 million kilograms in 2008. Production has since recovered and the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association (ZTA) said 132 million kg was auctioned in 2011.
The profile of tobacco farmers has changed in the last decade. Prior to 2000, 1,500 of the then about 4,500 commercial farmers produced 97 percent of the tobacco delivered to sales floors, while other commercial farmers generally shunned maize production because of price controls - which remain - and opted for cash crops such as paprika, cut flowers and cotton, while growing yellow maize for stock feed.
Cereal production for food security before 2000 was largely the domain of small farmers who benefited from the sophisticated agricultural input system which supported commercial farmers and were able to easily source cheap fertiliser and seeds. The disruption of commercial farming activities also saw the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural input industries.
ZTA's chief executive officer, Rodney Ambrose, told IRIN 67,000 tobacco growers - resettled on former white farmland - registered in 2011, of which only about 17,000 were considered large growers, including 300 white farmers still active in the sector, and that by and large the quality of tobacco delivered to the auction floors was “very good”.
Samuel Chizemo, a new tobacco farmer in Karoi about 150km north of Harare, told IRIN more farmers were opting to grow tobacco in place of maize, because of GMB delays in payment, although some was grown for personal consumption.
“Tobacco is a cash crop and unlike other crops which are delivered to the GMB we get paid cash on delivery,” he said and estimated he earned about US$8,000 from his tobacco crop this year and was paid promptly.
Some farmers, he said, were forced to sell the maize to third parties at a lower price than the controlled price of US$285 a ton, so it was the middlemen that profited from the grain, who could afford to wait for payment from the marketing board.
The USAID-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) said in its September 2011 factsheet that about 1.68 million people would require emergency food assistance during the lean season, from January to April 2012. This was a 12 percent decline from the previous year for the same period.
Chizemo is one of 36 small-scale farmers working six hectare divisions of formerly white-owned farmland which was redistributed in 2001. They are all cultivating tobacco as contract farmers.
This year the average price of tobacco per kg was $2.73, slightly lower than the previous year of US$2.89.
Initially, Zimbabwe’s hyperinflationary environment - which was effectively ended through the scrapping of the local currency and its replacement in 2009 with the US dollar, Botswana pula and South African rand - financial difficulties, and the farmers’ inexperience of growing and curing tobacco hamstrung their first attempts in 2003.
“Besides us not having the know-how, it is a very expensive crop to grow,” Chizemo said.
Irrigation systems were also removed by the evicted farmer, which limited the area under cultivation, as the new farmers had to carry drums of water from a nearby river to ensure the crops did not wither in the early stages.
The refusal of banks to grant loans to the new farmers because of concerns over the security of land ownership saw the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) petition President Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF government in 2004 to permit tobacco companies to offer farmers contracts whereby the necessary inputs, such as fertilizer and chemicals, were provided ahead of the planting season.
Under the contract agreement the farmers must sell to an agreed auctioneer until they have paid the loan for the inputs and are then free to sell the surplus to whoever they choose.
New farmers were also offered advice, assisted in the paying of wage bills and in some cases supplied with food.
However, it was the scrapping of the local currency, which saw tobacco’s renaissance.
“Tobacco growing is making a big difference to our lives,” Thomas Gwata, 28, from the Nyazura area east of Harare, who started tobacco farming in 2006 on a formerly white-owned farm that was subdivided among 65 small farmers, who made thousands of dollars from this year’s crop.
The farmers also lack access to a curing facility.
“The farmer who took over the farm infrastructure does not allow us to use the [curing] barn as he says it’s on his land,” he told IRIN. “He is a cellphone farmer,” a term describing new farmers who received land, but are employed elsewhere and conduct their farming activities by calling their workers on cellphones.
Gwata and his fellow small-scale farmers built their own curing barn, but it was not as efficient as the barn constructed by the former white farmer.
Without a coal supplier the tobacco farmers have resorted to tree-felling to get fuel for tobacco curing. “This is causing serious deforestation but we really do not have a choice,” he said.
“We have the land but we are not benefiting enough; agriculture is the driver of our economy so government should seriously look into putting money into the sector,” said Gwata. That may not happen any time soon though as the government remains cash-strapped.
TIMB chief executive officer Andrew Matibiri said the new farmers had also yet to come to grips with the tobacco industry systems, including notification of how much of the product they intended to grow.
“Some farmers are not aware of this and just bring their crop to the already overcrowded three auction floors in Harare which were designed for 4,000 growers,” he said.
However, Matibiri said the sector was being rejuvenated. “Besides earning the country much needed foreign currency, tobacco is now benefiting thousands of families rather than the small minority who grew it before.”
He forecast that tobacco production could grow to 350 million kg annually in three to four years - provided there was adequate financial support - thanks to demand from the European Union and China, which each purchase about 40 percent of the country’s tobacco crop.
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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions