>Harare artist Penny Kirkman captured the spirit of the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe in the 1980s with a series of magnificent pen and ink sketches marking the opening of the Willowvale Tobacco Auctions floors.
Not long after Independence, those floors in Harare were the biggest in the world. Penny Kirkman’s drawings captured the hearts of everyone in the industry.
“What an eye for detail that girl has,” I remember Jeremy Webb-Martin saying when he was President of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association (ZTA). I showed the wonderfully executed and observed drawings to him at ZTA House before putting them into a magazine called Tobacco Today.
Chief Information Officer Andy Field looked at them, smiled and said “People say that tobacco is dominated by whites. They forget it also employs tens of thousands of blacks and in years to come, they’ll not only be middle ranking players but some of the industry’s most competent innovators.”
In those days, workers, middlemen, planners and politicians were proud to say – I am a member of the tobacco industry. That was before the anti-smoking lobby came to dominate most of the Western world. Rightly so, say most people today. “Smoking kills,” screams every packet on the shelves of small shops and supermarkets.
But while the West started to stop puffing away, (I was one of them) Zimbabwe was still able to find big, open, lucrative markets in other parts of the world.
As Robert Mugabe said when he opened the Willowvale Floors – “My mother told me not to smoke but she never said I shouldn’t grow and sell tobacco.” The cameras clicked, the hands clapped, the money rolled in. In the 1980s, tobacco flourished.
Readers of The Zimbabwean need no reminder that tobacco is suffering terribly from a shortage of inputs, fertilizers, seeds, modern farming equipment and trained men and women. Only last week this paper told the tragic story of an industry on its last legs. And how next year’s crop of about 17-20 million kgs will be the smallest since 1972, the start of Chimurenga Two.
The decline has been rapid. In 1999 Zimbabwe produced 250 million kgs of high quality leaf. The following year (the start of the Great Land Grab) that figure fell to 237 million kgs. In 2005 it was only 74 million kgs, the following year 55 million kgs and next year…a pitiful 17-20 million kgs.
Zimbabwe no longer features among the world’s top six growers who are now Brazil, the USA, India, Malawi, Italy and China. The Chairman of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Lands and Agriculture, Zanu (PF) MP for Masvingo South Walter Mzembi recently told Business Chronicle that the tobacco auction floors are operating at only eight percent of their capacity.
Farmers have failed to pay back loans amounting to more than $1 trillion, as a result of reduced production, putting a question mark on the auction floors, which loaned the funds under contract farming arrangements.
Mzembi said the committee would soon release a report on its recommendations and wanted measures put in place to increase land utilization ahead of the 2006/2007 season. He said the committee’s findings and recommendations would be submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture later this month.
Take another look at Penny Kirkman’s pictures. When, at last, Mugabe dies or retires (soon we all hope) the men and the sons and the daughters of those men in those lovely sketches will start working again.
And if – as thought – the demand for the tobacco leaf totally disappears throughout the world, they are people who could easily be absorbed into other areas of the once vibrant Zimbabwean agricultural industry. – Trevor Grundy lived and worked as a journalist in Zimbabwe from 1980 to 1996. He is a former editor of Tobacco Today.
Just 10 years ago, tourism and tobacco were industries that generated millions of dollars for Zimbabweans. Today, they are in a shambolic state of disarray, thanks to the short-sighted policies of Zanu (PF) and the nauseating incompetence and brazen greed of the country's so-called leaders.