Zimbabwe opens tobacco auctions


ZIMBABWE farmers started selling their crop yesterday following a delay caused by the coronavirus outbreak, with at least 230 million kilogrammes of tobacco expected this year.

By Tatira Zwinoira

Tobacco sales were delayed by over a month following the outbreak of the coronavirus and a month-long lockdown ordered by President Emmerson Mnangagwa to contain the virus. The opening of the tobacco selling season is expected to provide vital foreign currency inflows to an economy suffering from acute dollar shortages.

Statutory Instrument (SI) 94 of 2020 exempted the tobacco sector to operate during the lockdown period. However, this was on condition that players practise recommended guidelines to reduce COVID-19 infections.

“Statutory Instrument 94 of 2020 encourages the decentralised selling of tobacco. This should be the main thrust of the industry from now and ahead as this reduces crowds in Harare and is also in line with government policy of devolution,” said Agriculture minister Perrance Shiri at the official launch of the 2020 tobacco marketing season in Harare yesterday.

“Additionally, deliveries of tobacco to the floors can be re-structured by consolidating loads to minimise the number of farmers and human traffic coming to the markets and at the same time reducing transport costs paid by the farmer. Similarly, with the use of information technology, growers can monitor virtual sales of their tobacco crop in the comfort of their homes without the need of travelling to the selling floors.”

He added: “Please be consistent in turning your practical guidance into action to avoid continued spread of the disease. I urge everyone to continue to implement these guidelines up to the end of the season even after the lockdown is finally lifted in order to avoid resurgence in cases.”

The Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) reported that the number of registered growers was 148 084 this year compared to 178 721 in the prior year with more than 7 609 growers having registered for the first time.

Uncertainty around foreign currency retentions and unfavourable weather conditions have caused the drop in the number of growers.

TIMB chairman Patrick Davenish said being allowed to operate during the lockdown would enable farmers to plan and prepare for the 2021 season on time.

“The tobacco season has an 18-month production cycle. Thus, further delays would have had a deleterious delay in terms of preparations for 2021 production season, including establishment of seedbeds resulting in a loss of two consecutive seasons, something that would have had harmful consequences on the overall economy of the country,” he said.

“The crop before us was generally grown under grim weather conditions characterised by late rains and prolonged dry spells, with the rainfall remaining way below average levels in many districts while the irrigated crop had major problems due to erratic power supplies.”

He said tobacco plantings were down by 12% from 133 000 hectares (ha) in the 2018/19 season to 117 000 ha for the current season.

However, the fewer growers and grim weather conditions reducing tobacco hectarage by 6% in the 2019/20 agricultural season from 106 558 hectares are expected to lower export proceeds from the crop.

Also, COVID-19 trade restrictions to curb the spread of the virus in China and South Africa, Zimbabwe’s two top export markets for tobacco accounting for nearly 63% in 2018, is also expected to affect exports.

In the last tobacco marketing season, a record output of 259 million kg was produced.