Source: Editorial Comment: Do more to perfect the tobacco system | The Herald 11 NOV, 2019
The 16 percent decline in farmers who have registered to grow tobacco in Zimbabwe’s 2019-2020 farming season has far-reaching implications on foreign currency generation for the country.
Tobacco is among Zimbabwe’s major foreign currency earners, and a decline in production translates into a drop in inflows of hard currency, and consequently the country’s ability to pay for critical imports of power, fuel, medical drugs and other essentials needed principally by commerce and industry.
While late rains and drought are cited as contributory factors, inescapable is the lived reality of harrowing experiences of growers — some with young children — having to endure for days outside auction floors, while awaiting acceptance of their tobacco by the floors, and subsequently payment for delivery of the crop.
One private company has shown foresight by offering transport for the crop to the auction floors and even affording the growers an advance payment against the delivered crop.
This transport programme needs to be rolled out to all the tobacco growing regions of the country.
It is something the State-owned Road Motor Services, ought to be encouraged to enter, offering affordable transport for the majority of small-holder tobacco producers.
The decentralisation of the auction floors to Chinhoyi, Mvurwi and Rusape was a propitious move in ensuring farmers travelled shorter distances when ferrying their tobacco to the market.
But for the growers, it is not just the inordinate delays before being paid or having to sleep rough at the auction floors that are among factors discouraging farmers from growing tobacco.
Among the factors are misrepresentations on the actual benefits accruing to the farmers.
There is a phalanx of unrepentant middlemen, determined by any means necessary to fleece the growers. Growers have raised the red flag year in, year out, so the authorities cannot feign ignorance over these developments at the auction floors during the tobacco selling season.
Low prices for the crop at the auction floors have seen farmers unable to return to the land, after the proceeds from their tobacco are captured by cartels of middlemen.
In some cases, after a whole season, farmers have not been able to pay transporters. That is how bad the situation is.
While this has been taking place, apparently there has been no discernible action from the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) seeking to intervene in order to alleviate the plight of the growers.
Decentralisation is part of the cocktail of measures needed to create an environment that contributes and incentivises increased production and quality of the crop.
In all the time these problems have manifested, what has been particularly astonishing is the apparent paralysis of the TIMB and seemingly its inability to learn from what appears to be better approaches instituted by either the Cotton Company (Cottco) or the Grain Marketing Board, where in general growers do not endure hardships in the transportation and marketing of their crops and subsequently payment for delivering to Cottco or GMB depots.
The Government has put in place incentives for grain producers in order to ensure food security based on domestic production, a measure also designed to reduce dependence on imports. So similarly, there ought to be measures in place for tobacco growers as part of a deliberate strategy to empower rural communities while growing foreign currency earnings.
A tour of the countryside reveals how tobacco-growing has empowered previously disadvantaged communities and transformed the lives of people in the rural areas. It would be tragic if current problems are allowed to roll back the achievements in the sector.
Both the TIMB, supported by the Government, need to step in and ensure that the number of growers, the hectarage and quality of the tobacco crop Zimbabwe is producing continue to improve while remaining competitive.
All these measures will make a significant contribution to employment creation in the country, but principally writing one of the success stories in the wake of the land reform programme.