Small-scale farmers choose tobacco over maize

Small-scale farmers are favouring tobacco over maize because they are paid immediately on delivery, while the Grain Marketing Board, the state-run cereal distribution monopoly, often takes months to pay.

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.

Tobacco production – a major foreign currency earner – plummeted from 237 million kg in 2000 to 49 million kilograms in 2008. Production has since increased somewhat and the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association said 132 million kg was auctioned in 2011.

Prior to 2000, 1,500 of 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 and were able to easily source cheap fertiliser and seeds. The disruption of commercial farming activities begun in 2000 also saw the collapse of Zimbabwe’s agricultural input industries.

ZTA’s chief executive officer, Rodney Ambrose, said 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. 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 $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 $285 a ton, so it was the middlemen that profited from the grain, who could afford to wait for payment from the marketing board.

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 $2.89.

Initially, Zimbabwe’s hyperinflationary environment, financial difficulties, and the farmers’ inexperience hamstrung their first attempts in 2003.

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 petition the 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.

It is 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 crop.

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