Bittersweet tale of tobacco farming in Zimbabwe

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THE success story of tobacco farming in Zimbabwe can aptly be described as a heavily sugar-coated pill – very sweet outside but bitter inside.
Though lauded as one of the success stories of the land reform programme in the country, tobacco farming has left a trail of environmental degradation, a starving nation and a health compromised tobacco small-scale farming community.
Farmers use wood to cure tobacco, have abandoned food crops and the health implications of improper handling of tobacco chemicals to farmers are chilling to think of. In the past, smallholder farmers were credited for producing much of the grain crops in the country but the recent years have seen a significant shift from this previous trend.
And a farmer from Mutare district in Manicaland province, Witness Chinene summed it all when he said: “Our children will judge us harshly for destroying the environment and failing to feed the country.”
“Look here,” he added pointing to vast swathes of bare ground which used to be thickly forested by indigenous trees. “The trees are long gone because farmers have been cutting them indiscriminately to cure tobacco. But we still have nothing to show for this tobacco farming craze. Tobacco farming was a failure in most parts of this area. And many farmers were left with heavy debts and no food for their families.”
A visit to some households in some parts of Manicaland revealed a frightening drift as granaries have been substituted by crudely built tobacco barns. And the few granaries observed were either empty or showing signs of not having been used for ages.
Phibion Chadambuka, a farmer who tried to venture into tobacco farming, was left deep in debt and could not pay some of the people he had engaged to harvest and cure the crop. And a verbal spat with one of his handymen over non-payment could have degenerated into a bloody brawl had it not been for the timely intervention by other villagers.
Chadambuka had concentrated on tobacco farming, neglecting food crops hoping to buy maize after selling tobacco. Instead he was left deep in debt and his family with no food.  He remarked dejectedly: “There is nothing I can do my brother. Everything seemed to have been cursed”.  Despite being an octogenarian, Chadambuka still has primary school-going children with his second wife after the death of his first wife.Advertisement

While Chadambuka’s experiences were distressing, another farmer from the same locality had a different story. Tendai Katsaruware, a young new tobacco farmer had hit a jack pocket at the tobacco floors.  He said he got nearly US$5,000 – a substantial amount by rural standards – after selling his tobacco. He married a wife, bought a cow, an ox-drawn plough, building materials and a few household goods. And for days after the rich pickings at the tobacco floors, Katsaruware was a daily feature at a local drinking spot, buying beer to anyone who knew his name.  On several occasions Katsaruware was picked up by passers-by in drunken stupor.
However, hardly two weeks after selling his tobacco crop, Katsaruware was penniless. He sold the cow he had bought. He sold the ox-drawn plough and building materials too, and reports said he sold some of the household utensils as well. Some people in the area with a fertile sense of wit crudely alleged that he could have sold the wife too had a right price been offered.
This reporter caught up with Katsaruware at Gutaurare Business Centre in Mpudzi Resettlement Scheme where he was sharing opaque beer with his uncle. “Sekuru (uncle)!” he said with his usual salutation to anyone older than him. And he added with nostalgia: “I made a lot of money but I don’t know what happened to the money. Next time I will be more careful and I will buy maize for food soon after selling my tobacco. I don’t want to repeat the mistakes of last season,” he said.
Another farmer, Zwanai Sherekete could not hide his frustration as he bluntly revealed that he made a mistake when he ventured into tobacco farming, abandoning the maize crop. He was a maize farmer of repute but during the past two seasons he tried his luck in tobacco farming. And this past season the results were catastrophic.
“I was into maize but when some farmers turned to tobacco, I felt I should try my luck too but today I am now paying the high price for my choices. I registered good results during the first season but last season was a complete disaster; the prices at the tobacco floors were too low to sustain a future in tobacco farming. If I had grown maize and found that the prices were low I could simply withhold the crop and sell it to my neighbours. But with tobacco you cannot do the same, you have to take your crop to the tobacco floors,” Sherekete said.
The tobacco craze has spread to farmers even in hot and dry areas like Buhera and Marange in Manicaland and Gokwe in Midlands and some parts of Matabeleland which previously were known for growing small grains. A Buhera villager, Tongesai Murandu warned of an impending food crisis in most parts of the country if more farmers continue to discard food crops for tobacco.
“A tobacco field day here in Buhera was held at the MP for Buhera North’s homestead and that alone sends the wrong signals. And this season we are expecting more farmers in Buhera to abandon small grains for tobacco and I swear a serious food crisis is looming in the country,” Murandu said with a heavy heart.
But despite all these disturbing revelations, agriculture minister Joseph Made was adamant that the tobacco sector had done well, insisting that tobacco did not compromise the production of any other crop. In fact, he said, all farmers who produce tobacco also produce maize but his sentiments were at tangent with events on the ground.
“It is a fallacy that tobacco has taken the space of other crops. It is a myth to say tobacco is competing with grain crops. In fact tobacco produces residual nitrogen which benefits the grain crop, especially maize. It is the reality of the land reform that whites thought black farmers cannot produce tobacco. Our farmers have done so well in the shortest possible time achieving right now 217 million kilogrammes of cured tobacco while in the whole time of white commercial farmers achieved 237 million kilogrammes of cured tobacco,” Made said.
He added: “In a very short space of time look at what our farmers have done. Can you imagine $700 million going straight into the pockets of black farmers? Which other crop has given that much to the small holder and newly resettled farmers? It’s those who want to undermine the land reform programme who say tobacco is competing with grain crops. There is nothing like that; it is a lie”.  
However, in a recent paper, agriculture specialist professor Sheunesu Mpepereki revealed that the last few seasons have seen thousands of farmers abandoning maize production for tobacco. “Many failed to swim across while the lucky ones discovered fortunes unimaginable. Lack of knowledge, inexperience and lack of adequate resources all connived, as it were, to deny these aspiring tobacco farmers the sweet fruits of the golden leaf,” Prof Mpepereki revealed.
Prof Mpepereki noted that tobacco was a non-edible leaf crop and more land was put under tobacco with less put under food crops. “In the immediate past season even elderly women have put their home fields under tobacco, remaining with virtually no patch of maize, even just for some green mealies for roasting. The recent reports that farmers in Buhera, Matabeleland and Gokwe have registered to grow tobacco must send alarm bells ringing among those concerned with Zimbabwe’s food security,” he warned.
Tobacco in Zimbabwe has registered phenomenal growth with about 106,127 growers having registered for the 2013/14 season. And by July this year, 60,110 farmers had registered for the 2014/15 season, with 27,660 being communal, 22,577 A1 farmers, 5,103 A2 farmers and 4,775 small-scale commercial farmers. And when this reporter visited leading tobacco producing areas like Odzi and Makoni district in the past weeks, many tobacco farmers had already planted their irrigated crop and preparations for the dry land crop were at advanced stages.
A study by Jones Govereh, a visiting research scholar, and Thomas S. Jayne a visiting associate professor at Michigan State University (MSU), USA also revealed that the challenge for government policy was to identify and facilitate strategic pathways to create positive interactions between food and cash crops, and between the public and private sector.
The paper titled ‘Effects of Cash Crop Production on Food Crop Productivity: Synergies or Trade-offs’ identified various pathways by which crop commercialisation could affect food security and incomes under conditions of pervasive market failures. The study emphasized the need to develop more informed policies in support of smallholder welfare.