Tobacco’s cycle of slavery needs to stop

ZIMBABWE’S tobacco farmers continue to defy odds, and have produced another record crop that are seeing the southern African nation re-establishing itself as one of the leading growers globally.

Sales of 261 million kilogrammes as of last week means

that the country surpassed the 259 million kg achieved in 2019. The new sales figure also matches output, which peaked at 261 million kg, also in 2019. Tobacco is one of the biggest export earners in the country, which is trying to ramp up production to 300 million kg by 2025.

Farmers sell their crop at auction floors in the capital Harare and to contracting companies. Small scale farmers have picked up the button following the collapse of commercial agriculture as a result of the government’s seizure of land from thousands of white farmers in 2000. As a result, tobacco has emerged as the most successful sub-sector, contributing nearly US$1 billion to export earnings every year.

The number of farmers joining industry this year grew to 148 527 this year from 123 000 last year while the land under tobacco farming grew to 117 000 hectares this year from 110 000 hectares in the previous year. There is a dark side to Zimbabwe’s success, which has seen small-scale farmers earning very little from their labour while feeling enslaved to contract companies who seem to enjoy most of the benefits. Despite the abundant harvest, farmers are finding themselves in a perilous position because the terms of the contract system put in place by government are keeping them in a cycle of enslavement.

Statistics from the regulator, the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) show that about 95% of Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop is financed through the contract system. Under the system, companies and agents loan seeds, fertilisers, food and money to the farmers on condition that they sell their tobacco crop to those firms or their agents. The firms set the price. For years now, farmers have been caught in a vicious cycle of taking out loans from tobacco companies to finance their operations under the contract arrangement  and find themselves sinking deeper into debt, according to the Tobacco Association of Zimbabwe, which represents the farmers.

“This (record sales) is a momentous achievement for the sector, it shows that farmers are working hard. But the benefits to farmers are minimal," said George Seremwe, president of the association.

"It is worrying that most farmers are heavily indebted. We would be happier if this tobacco success story translates to improved livelihoods for farmers.”

China buys most of Zimbabwe's Chinese firms and their agents dominate the sector.

According to their association, farmers are finding themselves unable to service their loans. As a result, they are forced to sign another contract, effectively binding them to the company for another season. And the cycle of enslavement continues. The government needs to relook at this model of funding a critical sector, and give farmers value for money. Failure may lead to side-marketing as farmers seek to escape this depressing state of affairs, or see them completely dropping out of tobacco farming altogether.

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