October 26, 2011

Small-scale farmers choose tobacco over maize

Small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe 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.

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.

According to ZTA's chief executive officer, Rodney Ambrose, 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”.

Despite of this, however, 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.

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. 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. However, the farmers also lack access to a curing facility. Without a coal supplier the tobacco farmers have resorted to tree-felling to get fuel for tobacco curing.

TIMB chief executive officer Andrew Matibiri estimates 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. (IRIN)

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