TOBACCO Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) chief executive officer Dr Andrew Matibiri (AM) is preparing to leave the tobacco industry regulator next month after 12 years of service, in line with the Government regulations prohibiting heads of parastatals to serve beyond 10 years.
Dr Matibiri took over at the parastatal in 2009 when tobacco production had plummeted to a historical low and leaves when production has reached an all-time high.
The Sunday Mail’s Deputy News Editor, Lincoln Towindo (LT), spoke to Dr Matibiri on his tenure at the parastatal and his future endeavours.
LT: You have held the top job at TIMB for over a decade and now you are calling it time. What was the secret to your longevity?
AM: I am not sure if my tenure as chief executive officer was unprecedented, as my predecessor held the post for 14 years.
I became the substantive CEO in 2009 and thus served for 12 years.
However, it must be noted that there is no secret to my stay at the helm of the TIMB.
It was all down to loyalty and full commitment to the job.
It was also made possible by the invaluable support from dedicated staff members, board members, the parent Ministry and other national agencies.
LT: What would you say were your major achievements during your time with TIMB?
AM: The industry managed to arrest decline in production, recorded a full recovery and attained new production records and export earnings.
This was all made possible by increased participation of companies owned by indigenous players and increased participation by both the small-scale and large-scale farmers in production.
LT: In serving the organisation, you obviously had your fair share of challenges. Can you outline, for our readers briefly, the major challenges you faced during your tenure?
AM: The major challenges were coping with cholera outbreak of 2008-09 and the current Covid-19 pandemic.
Tobacco marketing seasons are characterised by the movement of farmers, their families and staff to and from centralised sales points.
Had the industry not instituted appropriate health guidelines, these diseases could have spread easily across the length and breadth of the country. Obviously with the prevailing second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2021 season will again see the implementation of similar, but most probably enhanced, health guidelines.
Other chronic challenges are the continuing deforestation and its effects on sustainable tobacco production and that of viability of tobacco farmers.
LT: During your time indigenous farmers, most of them beneficiaries of the Land Reform Programme, became the major tobacco producers in the country. What do you ascribe this change to?
AM: The TIMB and stakeholders took it upon themselves to ensure recovery of the industry by quickly understanding the profile and supportive needs of the beneficiaries of Land Reform.
Most farmers did not understand tobacco marketing regulations and substantial efforts were made to correct this.
LT: You took over the reins at TIMB when tobacco production in Zimbabwe had plummeted to historical lows. However, production has recovered tremendously over the last few years. What was done through policy changes and regulatory changes in order to steer this shift?
AM: The introduction of contract growing and marketing in 2004 to address issues of shortages of inputs, high input costs and shortages of foreign currency marked the beginning of the recovery of tobacco production.
In addition, changes to the farmer payment system to ensure timeous receipt of proceeds and further, part payment of these in hard currency, have ensured that the enthusiasm to grow tobacco from farmers remains in place.
LT: Corruption at tobacco auction floors, which includes but is not limited to side marketing, remains a major concern for most stakeholders. What measures did you introduce during your time in office and in retrospect do you think the measures went far enough to address this problem?
AM: One of the first actions that we carried out was the removal of the “B” class buyers from the industry because they were not adding any value.
Lately, the TIMB has also introduced regulations that require all contractors to give support at stipulated minimum values.
In addition, only contractors with verifiable export orders or supplying exporters will be allowed to operate.
These measures will go a long way in reducing side marketing and illegal sales of tobacco.
The TIMB has established and staffed an inspectorate department to handle any issues of corruption, non-compliance and other illicit activities in the industry.
LT: During your tenure, TIMB constructed a world-class headquarters in Harare. How did construction of a new HQ help improve the operations of TIMB?
AM: The TIMB is one of the oldest parastatals in the country and had always been housed at the premises of the one auction sales floor.
However, with the opening of other sales floors, the institution needed to have its own modern premises so as to effectively regulate the operations of these sales floors.
The construction of the headquarters has greatly improved the operations of the institution and given it enough space to house its staff adequately and its information technology systems and databases as per industry standards.
LT: TIMB also rolled out an e-marketing initiative, which failed to gain much traction. Why do you think the initiative failed and in the future what could be done to ensure that technology is at the centre of tobacco marketing in Zimbabwe?
AM: On the contrary e-marketing did not fail as about 80 percent of marketing procedures are conducted on this platform.
Unfortunately, the processes carried out on the platform are not visible or apparent to the observer.
These include recording of farmers’ deliveries, classification of the tobacco, processing of payments.
The processes can now be monitored in real time and minimise the need for human intervention.
The only aspect, which is the most apparent to the observer is electronic bidding.
Electronic bidding is inherently much slower than the vocal version and is only used when deliveries are low.
LT: Zimbabwe, like all countries, is currently grappling with the Covid-19 pandemic. How has the pandemic affected the tobacco sector?
AM: So far, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on orders from export markets have been insignificant.
Zimbabwean tobacco continues to be sought after and the country has managed to find markets for all its production.
Locally, the pandemic has indeed meant certain services that require direct face to face interaction are no longer possible with restrictions on movement and attendance of sales.
LT: Looking back, what would you single out as your lasting legacy at TIMB as you prepare to leave?
AM: It is difficult to single out one, but the one thing that still gives me a nice feeling is having witnessed the production record of 237 million kg that was set in 2000 being breached twice, with 252 million kg in 2018 and setting a new record of 259 million kg in 2019.
In addition, sales are now de-centralised out of Harare and there is an atmosphere of improved integrity of tobacco marketing system emanating from increased compliance to the recently introduced contract farming regulations.
LT: What’s next for Dr Matibiri?
AM: For now, I do not have any concrete plans. Obvious, the first thing I would like to do is to take some rest and thereafter look at the options available.