NOT so long ago, stories of robbers or thieves targeting raw agricultural products like tobacco or any other crop being delivered to the floors were not only a rarity, but unheard of.
They would target to snatch finished products like cigarettes from traders or retailers and later sell or grab the money generated from the sale of the raw products from the farmer.
Since the coming on board of many smallholder farmers to grow tobacco with the advent of the land reform, there has been an influx of these foragers at the country’s tobacco floors who have been employing every trick in the book, including force, deception and even pick-pocketing to steal from the farmers.
Some would allegedly work in cahoots with a few rotten apples at the floors to frustrate farmers into eventually selling the produce at give-away prices to the crooks posing as B-class buyers.
Some would even work with commercial sex workers to identify and isolate those farmers who would have scored high earnings and rob them of their cash.
There would also be those who prowled the farming communities duping farmers into selling the tobacco to them for a song to avoid the arduous process of coming to camp at the floors for weeks, as the process of selling the golden leaf was littered with a lot of challenges then.
Today, the tobacco marketing process has since improved and when farmers were beginning to enjoy and look forward to the process, a new breed of cheeky robbers has emerged and is prowling their farming lands and beyond grabbing everything that stirs in their path.
In a way, this demonstrates the high levels of desperation and maybe sophistication that now accompany thieving activities.
Just recently, farmers travelling in a Nissan Atlas truck laden with 25 bales of tobacco were intercepted at around 10:30pm by an unregistered Honda Fit vehicle with four occupants brandishing two pistols who attacked them at a railway line along Gleneagles Road in Harare.
The robbers made off with both the tobacco and the Nissan Atlas truck, which was later recovered in Norton after being used to commit another robbery by the suspects, but the tobacco was gone.
Following the unfortunate incident, national police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi issued a statement warning farmers against making night deliveries adding that as the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), they were concerned about the rising cases of armed robberies involving tobacco bales in transit to auction floors at night.
He hinted that farmers could be using vehicles that are not roadworthy to ferry their produce to the floors, hence the decision to move at night when there will be less scrutiny from law enforcement agents.
In a related matter, police in Mashonaland East have since launched a manhunt for four armed robbers who recently intercepted a truck laden with 120 tobacco bales on its way to the auction floors in Marondera before stealing 50 bales and disappearing.
Provincial police spokesperson Inspector Simon Chazovachiyi said the incident that occurred near Two Boy area in Village 17, Marondera with the robbers reportedly firing a single shot directly at the truck driver and narrowly missing him, forcing him to stop the vehicle.
They pulled him out together with another passenger and handcuffed them before leaving the duo lying face down on the ground, with the victims only managing to call their farm manager who later made a report to the police.
The big question, however, is on the farmers’ role in all these misfortunes that are dogging them and leaving them poorer every time.
In all honesty, farmers are big accomplices in this little vignette of deceit, as they are responsible for creating the conditions under which the prowling robbers thrive.
Most farmers, especially from the smallholder category, are in the habit of exploring short cuts that help them cut corners and in so doing escape costs.
They usually do this at the time they send their produce to the floors when look for transporters that charge them less but in most cases will be using vehicles that are not roadworthy while the produce will not even be protected from elements, as is the case with professional and registered transporters.
This means that the farmers will also be dicing with the quality of their produce, as in some cases tobacco has been spoilt by showers of rain while vehicle breakdowns normally characterise the trips.
Such transporters also do not have the courtesy of putting up with their clients when they arrive at the floors to find the place clogged with others waiting to be served. In most cases, such unscrupulous transporters just dump the farmers and leave while in cases that they choose to stay a bit longer, they calculate the value of possible business they could have made and ask the farmers to give them the equivalent.
It is, however, refreshing to note that the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) has since introduced the registration of transporters to ferry produce to the floors every season to save farmers from falling prey to chancers that always deliver shoddy services in the end.
Registered transporters can be easily held accountable in the event of a problem and can also be traced.
The good thing is that they do their work during the day when there are less chances of getting attacked by daring robbers that are hijacking produce and undeservedly making money from it.
On the one hand, there is also a high likelihood that some of the people being robbed could be middlemen masquerading as farmers to escape scrutiny, as their operations have always been against the law.
Most of them have since changed the way they used to do business and instead of descending on the floors like they used to do, they now go to the farming communities looking for farmers struggling to mobilise cash to ferry tobacco to the floors and offer to buy it.
Obviously they buy the produce for a song to later sell at reasonably viable prices after re-grading and packing it.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU) president Dr Shadreck Makombe suspects some farmers could even be conniving with the so-called robbers to have the tobacco allegedly stolen before going to claim reparations from their insurance companies, which leaves them in the game when they could have scored low grades and less money at the floors.
In fact, farmers just need to ride on the order prevailing in the tobacco industry in recent seasons to book dates for delivering their produce and look for reliable and reputable transporters in clusters and share the costs.
Anyway, the 2021 tobacco marketing season ends tomorrow for the auction floors, but continues until further notice at the contract floors, so those still to deliver their produce have a few hours to do so, but not at night and must remember to engage reliable and registered transporters.