Zimbabwe is a world tobacco superproducer… but farmers struggle to survive

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Africa’s growing Agribusiness

By Michelle Chifamba

Posted on Tuesday, 29 June 2021 10:58, updated on Wednesday, 30 June 2021 15:11
A woman sorts a bale of tobacco at a processing plant outside Harare
A woman sorts a bale of tobacco at a processing plant outside Harare, Zimbabwe, February 20, 2019. Picture taken February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

Zimbabwe is one of the largest producers of tobacco in Africa, exporting $782m in the 2020 season. But while tobacco is making some people rich, the farmers sucked into contract farming at the bottom of the pile are losing money.

Carved on their faces are visible marks of sorrow as they sit patiently outside one of the country’s tobacco auction floors, in Harare. The small-scale farmers lament the meagre earnings they are likely to receive after the tobacco sales.

Many of the small-scale farmers are struggling, impoverished by merchants who lure them into debt through contract farming. After harvest and sales, the farmers – entangled in debt – see all their proceeds go to serving paying off their debts with local contract companies that supply them with farming inputs at the beginning of the season.

“Six months of our hard labour in the tobacco fields, our fate is being negotiated by someone else in the auction floors as we are not allowed to get inside because [of] the prevailing Covid-19 regulations,” 27-year-old Jairos Mufudzi tells The Africa Report.

Farmers get money on the official bank rate while goods are sold [at] the black-market rate. They are getting less money for production and they remain poor.

In Hurugwe, some 200 kilometres north-west of the capital Harare, Mufudzi and his friend wait patiently for their tobacco to be sold on the auction floors so they get paid. But that money earned will not be enough to pay off what they invested into growing the tobacco.

Mufudzi says he has failed to improve his standard of living, despite the hard and long hours he puts in. “I only made enough profits in 2015 and I managed to buy a few cows and a plough. Now we are getting paid in ZWL local currency. It is always eroded by inflation.”

Buyers examine bales at the start of the tobacco selling season, after the coronavirus disease outbreak delayed the opening of auctions by more than a month, in Harare, Zimbabwe, April 29, 2020. REUTERS/Philimon Bulawayo

Hard labour, unequal pay

Tobacco farming forms part of Zimbabwe’s main revenue source, a million-dollar sector that contributed an average $782m from export in the 2020 farming season, according to the annual statistical report by the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB).

This makes Zimbabwe one of the largest producers of the golden leaf in Africa, and the world’s fourth largest producer after China, Brazil and the United States of America. Yet, the welfare of tobacco growers – mostly small-scale farmers – reveal gloom.

Unfair pricing

The TIMB statistical report of 2020 revealed that the highest price paid on auction floors has remained $4.99/kg for the past six years. However, farmers have seen their tobacco sell for as little as $0.80/kg, resulting in paltry earnings after contractors, middle-men and the auction floor commissions are paid.

Mufudzi says the possibility of getting an equivalent of $50 transferred into his bank account or mobile transfer [is slim], yet he paid $10 per bale for transportation from his rural home to Harare. “The six bales lined-up for sale in the auction floors can amount to less than $50, after all the deductions. What we are earning is not sustainable to improve our lives.”

Zimbabwe has three main auction floors that were licensed to operate in 2018: Tobacco Sales Floor, Boka Tobacco Floors and Premier Tobacco Floor. Travelling from the outskirts and remote rural areas of Hurungwe, Rusape and Wedza, farmers have to spend two or three nights outside, as they wait for their turn to have their tobacco auctioned.

Part of these auction floors do not have facilities to support the waiting farmers with toilets and bathrooms, meaning the farmers rely on nearby bushes. At night they have to either endure the long winter nights outside the auction gates or incur additional expenses to pay for accommodation at nearby residential areas.

Command economic policies

According to the Zimbabwe Farmers Union, farmers are feeling the pinch from the country’s economic policies, some of which erode the value of money, resulting in them earning less for their hard-work.

“Farmers should be paid the value of their production. The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board should make sure that there is fairness in prices, especially for contracted farming because there is a lot of contractual obligations that have to be met. In the absence of a fair pricing system, farmers continue to be disenfranchised getting lower prices and they will remain in debt and [be] exploited by contracting companies,” says Paul Zacharia, the union’s secretary general.

Apart from unfair pricing, the Zimbabwe government also announces command policies that exploit poorly funded, small-scale farmers.

“The recently gazetted Statutory Instrument 127 states that goods should be sold on the official bank rate ZWL 84 for $1. Farmers get money on the official bank rate while goods are sold [at] the black-market rate. They are getting less money for production and they remain poor,” says Bhekezela Gumbo, a researcher at the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute.

Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry, although one of the most lucrative in the country, has left farmers poor. Visibly weary women queue outside the big walls safeguarding the auction floor, after a day’s travel from the remote Rusape [Manicaland Province].

Lose lose situation

Facing various types of technical and financial challenges, they are determined to shift away from tobacco farming to other crops, but they seem not to find a way out.

“It is a lose or lose situation as they are toiling and sinking in debt,” says Ethel Nyaguwe, a female farmer from Rusape (Manicaland Province). “As a result of the contracts with the independent merchants who lure us at the beginning of the farming season to enter into contracts with them, providing all the inputs when the tobacco is harvested and sold, we get paltry earnings as they take all the money.”

Farmers tell The Africa Report that they are used for their cheap labour by contractors who provide inputs and take all the money at harvest.

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