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Tobacco farmers defy odds

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When Roger Boka started his auction business in the 1990s, Harare’s tobacco trading floors were hushed places, save for the mellifluous patter of the auctioneer.

A handful of white farmers, each selling hundreds of bales of tobacco, arrived in sport utility vehicles, checking into the city’s best hotels while waiting for their big checks to be cut.

During this year’s auction season, a very different scene unfolded underneath the cavernous roof of the Bock Tobacco Auction Floors.

Each day, hundreds of farmers arrived in minibuses and on the backs of pickup trucks, many with wives and children in tow. They camped in open fields nearby and swarmed to the cacophonous floor to sell their crop. The place was lively and crowded; two women gave birth on the auction floor.

The most obvious difference, though, was the colour of their faces: every single one of them was black.

“You used to only see white faces here,” said Rudo Boka, Boka’s daughter, who now runs the family business. “Now it is for everybody. It is a beautiful sight.”

Before Zimbabwe’s government began the seizure of white-owned farms in 2000, fewer than 2 000 farmers were growing tobacco, the country’s most lucrative crop, and most were white.

Today,
60 000 farmers grow tobacco, the vast majority of them black and many of them working small plots that were allotted to them in the land upheavals. Most had no tobacco farming experience yet managed to produce a hefty crop, rebounding from a low of 47 million kgs in 2008 to more than 150 million kgs this year.

The success of these small-scale farmers has led some experts to reassess the legacy of Zimbabwe’s forced land redistribution, even as they condemn its violence and destruction.
But amid that pain, tens of thousands of people got small farm plots under land reform, and in recent years many of these new farmers overcame early struggles to fare pretty well.

With little choice, but to work the land, the small-scale farmers have made a go of it, producing yields that do not match those of the white farmers whose land they were given, but are far from the disaster many anticipated, some analysts and scholars say.

“We cannot make excuses for the way it was carried out,” said Ian Scoones, an expert on farming at the University of Sussex who has been intensively studying land reform in Zimbabwe for the past decade. “But there are many myths that have taken hold — that land reform has been an unmitigated disaster, that all the land has been taken over by cronies in the ruling party, that the whole thing has been a huge mess. It has not. Nor has it been a roaring success.”

The result has been a broad, if notnpainful, shift of wealth in agriculture from white commercial growers on huge farms to black farmers on much smaller plots of land. Last year, these farmers shared $400 million worth of tobacco, according to the African Institute for Agrarian Studies, earning on average $6 000 each, a vast sum to most Zimbabweans.

“The money that was shared between 1 500 large-scale growers is now shared with 58 000 growers, most of them small scale,” said Andrew Matibiri, the director of Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board. “That is a major change in the country.”

The new farmers are receiving virtually no assistance from the government, which for years poured money into larger farms given to politically connected elites.

Instead, farmers are getting help from the tobacco industry, in the form of loans, advances and training. It is in Boka’s interest to revive the industry, so the company has invested heavily in helping farmers improve the yields and quality.

Tobacco is a tricky crop, requiring precise application of fertiliser and careful reaping. It must then be cured and graded properly to fetch a top price.

Recently, Alex Vokoto, head of public relations at the auction house, spotted several bales of desirable tobacco leaves cured to a honey colour on the floor and hustled the man who grew them, Stuart Mhavei, into the VIP lounge for a cup of coffee and a chat.

“This man is growing top-quality tobacco and he has only been at it for three years,” Vokoto said.
Mhavei has steadily increased his yield, quality and income.

So far this season, he has earned more than $10 000 on part of a vast farm that once belonged to a white family, investing the profits in a truck to transport his tobacco, as well as renting the truck to other farmers. Charles Taffs, president of the Commercial Farmers’ Union, said that the industry could have been transformed to include more black farmers in a much less destructive way.

“The tragedy with tobacco is that expansion, if they had the right policies, could have been done in the 1990s in conjunction with the commercial sector,” Taffs said. Instead, hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs and the country has suffered huge economic losses as a result.

The tobacco yield is still below its peak in 2000, when the crop hit 236 million kgs.

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