Tobacco rejection: a struggle for quality or the great rip off?

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HARARE: Anyone who has worked in the tobacco industry will testify that buying and selling the golden leaf is a notoriously painstaking exercise where every bit of leaf that goes through the auction system is checked and re-checked, mostly for inadequate moisture and moulds. 
It is a process that has left 50-year-old Tapfumaneyi Shava, a tobacco farmer from Trelawney area in Banket, Mashonaland West province, in a pickle.
He shakes his head in disbelief as he heads for the exit gate at Harare’s Premier Tobacco Auction Floors after being informed that part of his crop is not of a good enough quality. In fact, a total of 10 bales have fallen foul of the stringent tobacco grading systems, leaving Tapfumaneyi with two alternatives: he either has to regrade the tobacco or pay professionals to do it for him.
Wiping his brow and trying hard to put on a brave face, a dejected Tapfumaneyi, a father of three, says: “I have no choice but to pay for commercial re-handling because if I do it myself, they will find other defects. I have spent three days here waiting to sell my tobacco but now I am being told that some of my bales have been rejected. I still have to wait for some days to get cash from the bank.”
Tapfumaneyi’s dilemma is not an isolated incident but evidence of a growing crisis in the industry. A staggering 139,502 bales have been rejected at point of sale across the three main auction floors and several contract sales floors in the capital as of Tuesday this week. Overweight bales and mixing different grades in one bale are some of the reasons why farmers come to grief at the auction floors.
Ethical Leaf Tobacco (ELT) founder David Machingaidze said tobacco rejection affects farmers more than contractors.
“The effect of bale rejection for us as contractors is insignificant because in most cases it’s the farmer who refuses a sale because of the price. At the end of the day, bale rejection is an inconvenience for the farmer who has to re-handle, bale and rebook for sale the next day.
“If a bale needs to be re-handled, here at ELT floors for instance, there are a couple of commercial re-handlers who provide that service to the growers but it comes at a cost of between 20 cents to 25 cents per kilogramme.”
He added a word of caution for farmers who may be tempted to do things on the cheap: “There are unlicensed re-handlers as well who operate just outside our premises but some of them dupe farmers by stealing some of their tobacco.”Advertisement

Philemon Mangena, Managing Director of Premier Auction floors said the rehandling of the bales was not only an inconvenience, but also time consuming.
“We would have handled the bales from receiving, laying and auctioning and when tobacco is rejected, we repeat the processes. We however have a facility for re-handling all rejected tobacco and it takes 24 hours to fix the defects but it is really an inconvenience for the farmers as besides paying for re-handling, they also wait for another 24 hours to sell their tobacco,” he said.
However, Tapfumaneyi’s tale of woes and frustration is not shared by Dorothy Nyahondo, a tobacco grower from the Doma area of Mhangura, also in Mashonaland West.
She says it is her responsibility to ensure her crop is properly graded: “I am an agriculture extension officer so I am always thorough when curing, grading and baling my tobacco. So far I have sold 6,000kg of tobacco.”
Christopher Zvinoruka, an extension officer in the Ministry of Agriculture, attributed bale rejection to a lack of skills on tobacco handling processes.
He said: “Farmers do not spare some time to attend training sessions we offer on tobacco handling and market requirements.”
But the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board says efforts are underway to empower farmers with skills needed when they present their tobacco for sale.
“We admit tobacco rejection is a challenge and we are always making farmers aware of the need to present their tobacco well. Results are beginning to show as evidenced by the decline in the number of bales rejected from about 165 000 to the current 135 042 bales to date.
“There is also another challenge of nesting whereby farmers hide inferior tobacco in a bale with the highest grade so it is rejected as well by buyers,” said TIMB chief executive Dr Andrew Matibiri.
Zimbabwe expects sales of 202 million kilogrammes of tobacco during the 2016/17 selling season.
As at July 12, 174 million kilogrammes worth $520 million had gone through the hammer. Export destinations for Zimbabwean tobacco include Sudan, Belgium, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Indonesia, the Philippines, United Kingdom, Spain, New Zealand and Russia.