Farmers abandon maize for tobacco

HARARE - Zimbabwe is facing a huge import bill due to an acute maize shortage as more farmers are deserting the staple crop in favour of the golden leaf which has a ready market.

Over the past few years small-scale farmers are favouring tobacco over maize because they are paid immediately on delivery, while the Grain Marketing Board (GMB) often takes months to pay for the staple.

Last year alone at least 66 000 farmers registered as tobacco growers.

“This is my seventh year growing tobacco and I can safely say the crop has significantly changed my life,” said a visibly excited 53-year-old Phileas Kachere, a resettled farmer from Mvurwi.

“If you commit yourself to the work and diligently follow all the required processes you can find out that farming is not hard after all. I have just sold my bale for $4,99 (per kg) and there is more at home,” said Kachere who spoke while at Boka Tobacco Auctions Floors.

A mother of five, Kachere maintains she has not completely abandoned maize farming.

“We have not been getting our money consistently from GMB while we have school fees to pay and farming inputs to buy.

“Although I still plant maize, I decided long back to venture into tobacco production so I can keep my children in school,” she said.

Zimbabwe has suffered consistent bouts of food insecurity since 2000 after the government implemented its fast track land reform which saw thousands of white farmers displaced, often violently, to make way for landless black Zimbabweans.

Before the turn of the millennium, maize production was largely the domain of small farmers who benefited from the sophisticated agricultural input system which supported commercial farmers to easily source cheap fertiliser and seeds.

The disruption of commercial farming activities also saw the collapse of the country’s agricultural industry.

Although this year’s crop assessment has not been released, the government is not happy with farmers who have completely abandoned the obligation to feed the nation preferring other cash crops.

Farmers acknowledge that they have abandoned maize production and are likely to continue doing so as long as government does not come up with the right mechanism to support maize production.

“It will be difficult for us to begin full scale maize production again because currently there are no incentives to do so. Tobacco has given us life,” said Chiweshe farmer Monica Chitima aged 49.

“Unlike other crops which are first delivered to the GMB before you can be paid, tobacco is a cash crop and we get paid cash on delivery,” she said adding that she has so far earned about $6 000 from tobacco this year.

Zimbabwe is expecting tobacco revenue to increase by 16 percent this year to reach 170 million kg or more and earnings of around $600 million.

That would be up from just over 140 million kg last year, worth around $517 million, according to the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB).

To date tobacco worth over $52 million has been sold at the country’s three tobacco auction floors.

“Since I started growing tobacco in 2010 I have electrified my house and bought a pick-up truck,” said Kudzanai Maveto, 40, a communal farmer from Hurungwe.

“I actually regret not having started earlier. All these years I have been relying on maize but had to change to tobacco to ease my economic woes,” he said.

Zimbabwe was once the world’s biggest tobacco exporter, with sales accounting for 30 percent of exports.

Tobacco production has been rising since 2009, though it remains off a peak in 2000 of 236 million kg.

Production fell to a low point of 56 million kilogrammes in 2006, the weakest performance since independence from Britain in 1980.

The sudden collapse of commercial farming caused by the land reform sent Zimbabwe’s already wobbly economy into a tailspin, leading to world-record hyperinflation.

After the government abolished the Zimbabwean dollar and made the US dollar its currency of reference, farm production stabilised and began ticking upward.

Tobacco remains Zimbabwe’s biggest agricultural export, though mining has overtaken farming as the main foreign currency earner. - John Kachembere

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