Editorial Comment: Tobacco: There are real people behind numbers and they deserve better

Tobacco farmers want to be allowed to withdraw at least 50% of their proceeds at once, as the $1 000 withdrawal limit is not adequate to meet their needs.

EVEN before the tobacco selling season started, farmers have been crying out for a fair deal that recognises their hard work and pays them enough to keep them in business and build their lives. Sadly, their pleas fell on deaf ears as a combination of greedy merchants and a government drooling at the greenback rolling in left farmers more destitute and, in the words of one farmer quoted elsewhere in this edition, feeling chained to the system.

Farmers feel the system is designed to suck every penny out of them with little regard for their welfare or ambitions.

Take the story of Rosemary Dzodza captured on Page 9: The 60-year-old farmer recently travelled 200 kilometres to Harare with her tobacco crop for what she hoped would be a good payday.

Payment delays meant that she had to sleep in the open for two weeks and when the money eventually came, it as tiny fraction of what her tobacco had actually fetched at the auction.

“My tobacco sold for US$7,000, but I am only going home with less than US$400,” she says.

The rest of the money went to the merchant who gave her a loan to pay for fertilizer, seed, labour, firewood for curing, and even household food items under a contract growing scheme that has become pervasive on Zimbabwe’s farming landscape.

She says in addition to repaying the loan with interest, she was obliged to sell her crop to the merchant, at a set price, after which the merchant then sells the tobacco to the highest bidder or wealthy merchants.

There are over 145 000 farmers trapped in the system, and the government does not seem to realise that these are businesspeople who deserve to benefit from their sweat. With less than 2 000 commercial tobacco farmers, it is these small-scale producers that have made Zimbabwe the largest grower of tobacco in Africa, and the sixth largest grower in the world.

Farmers are in it for profit, they want to take care of their families. They have ambitions too, but are trapped in a system designed to keep them impoverished, in perpetuity.

Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop is expected to top 200 million kilogrammes this year, up from 180 million last year, with earnings of over US$800 million from US$452 million previously.

But we continue to see very little action being taken to address the plight of the farmers despite their strategic importance to the economy.

Contracting firms, who now dominate the tobacco market through funding over 95% of the crop, are acting like fraudsters and government is letting them get away with the abusive behaviour, possibly because many of its top officials are heavily involved in the exploitation.

Their actions risk alienating farmers from tobacco which may see them turning to other crops but that is clearly not the desired outcome. Government mandarins need to understand that there are real people behind the numbers, and real families that are facing hunger and are angry at the exploitation by the so-called merchants and a system that perpetuates their suffering.