Small-Scale Tobacco Farmers Are Giving Zimbabwe Reason to Dream

Why you should care

What’s bad for your lungs may be good for Zimbabwe.

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On his 5-hectare farm near Shamva, Oliver Namangwiya produces 4,300 kilograms of cured tobacco every year, earning at least $9,000 each season — 10 times the average annual income in Zimbabwe. He rotates crops, plants 1.5 hectares of maize every year and also sells that on the local market.

Globally, small land holdings like Namangwiya’s are widely seen as part of what can make agriculture uneconomical compared to massive, mechanized farms. In Zimbabwe, though, small-scale tobacco farmers are emerging as part of the solution.

Zimbabwe’s economy, driven for decades by the controversial policies of former President Robert Mugabe — removed in a “soft coup” in November 2017 — is in free fall. Mugabe’s drastic land-reform policies, which saw almost every white-owned farm in the country pass into Black hands in the early 2000s, are widely viewed as having destroyed the country’s ability to feed itself. Zimbabwe ranked 124 out of 137 countries rated in the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report for 2017–18.

It is a really happy story for the country and the farmers.

Oswell Mharapara, Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Research Board

But amid that economic darkness, Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry has staged a stunning recovery from a crisis after the land reforms. It now again produces the 200 million kilograms per year it did before that forced redistribution, even though the land and the profits are shared by 100,000 growers instead of 1,500. And the $887 million brought in by tobacco in 2016 made it the country’s single most valuable export, comprising 31 percent of Zimbabwe’s total foreign revenue. It’s a success story central to Zimbabwe’s hopes of an economic recovery.

“It is a really happy story for the country and the farmers,” says Oswell Mharapara, assistant general manager of Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Research Board (TRB).

When Zimbabwe first launched land reforms in 1980 after gaining independence, the government acquired land on a “willing seller, willing buyer” basis. The number of growers rose from 1,547 in 1980 to 7,194 in 1999. Namangwiya’s family received their farm under this initiative. Then, in 2000, Mugabe’s government began the so-called Fast-Track Land Reform Program. Often violent and sometimes deadly, this new program increased the number of tobacco growers tenfold in a little over a decade and — taking all crops into account — saw 300,000 Black Zimbabweans get their own farms.

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Top: An employee of Felix Mugari, a Zimbabwean tobacco farmer threatened with land confiscation, works in one of the plantation’s curing sheds. Bottom: A farmer holds his tobacco leaf during the official opening of the tobacco-selling season at Boka Tobacco Auction Floors in Harare on March 15, 2017.

Source (TOP) Gideon Mendel/Corbis via Getty (BOTTOM) JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty

Of the country’s 100,000 tobacco farmers, says Casper Mlambo, the agricultural manager of the Zimbabwe Tobacco Association (ZTA), 70,000 are “A1s” — smallholders with 6 hectares or less. About 25,000 farmers hold around 20 hectares each and 5,000 commercial farmers have up to 200 hectares each.

The influx of new, inexperienced farmers hit quality and yields, and the annual crop touched a record low of 48 million kilograms in 2008, says Mlambo. But the TRB, the ZTA and the merchants — who don’t have to be Black and are often foreign — funneled money into education and came up with the seed and equipment packages farmers like Namangwiya have since taken up. Yields have since increased steadily and, by 2013, “things really started to pick up,” says Mlambo. Farmers started buying cars and sending their children to boarding schools. And new businesses have sprung up in tobacco towns like Mvurwi, which has transformed from “a run-down service center” into a “buzzing” town with “vibrant markets,” says agricultural ecologist Ian Scoones from the Institute of Development Studies in the U.K.

Often, small-scale farmers use funding packages for fertilizers, seed, chemicals and other assistance offered by middlemen merchants and, in return, hand them the right to buy the tobacco at season’s end. Others go it alone, hoping for higher prices on the auction floor. Now, says Scoones, an increasing number of A1 farmers are combining the two approaches in a savvy attempt at economic diversification.

Namangwiya uses a $1,500 funding package from Chidziva Tobacco Processors at the start of each season and, with a loan from the ZTA, has recently installed a “rocket barn” — which uses far less timber fuel than regular curing and yields a superior product. He attends up to 20 free “field day” workshops each season to improve his farming practices, with impressive results. His yields are about 30 percent better than the national average and he has already repaid the loan he took for the rocket barn. Next on his Christmas wish list? A tractor that will allow him to plow deeper and further increase yields.

“It’s all about education,” says Mharapara. For instance, he says, tobacco cannot be rotated with tomatoes or potatoes but is perfectly suited to rotation with maize and cabbage. “I am very confident in the future for A1s,” he says. “We are seeing an improvement every year.”

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A farmer inspects his tobacco leaf for quality and aroma during the official opening of the tobacco-selling season at Boka Tobacco Auction Floors in Harare on March 15, 2017.

Source JEKESAI NJIKIZANA/AFP/Getty

A1 farmers have indeed gotten better at growing tobacco, says Mlambo. But their curing and handling techniques “need work.” They, he says, are “squashing the tobacco into rooms that are too small,” and their fireplaces and circulation systems are out-of-date. The ZTA and merchants are trying to get rocket barns on all farms, says Mlambo. They’re also rolling out a “pay as you plow” tractor hire scheme that has seen some farmers improve yields from 1,500 kilograms per hectare to 2,500 kilograms per hectare.

The large quantities of timber burned for tobacco curing has denuded woodlands at “unsustainable rates,” says David Taylor, the chief agronomist at Mashonaland Tobacco Company, among the country’s largest merchants. Merchants and the ZTA are prodding farmers to plant their own eucalyptus woodlots. An increase in Chinese buyers, who have different crop requirements, will also force farmers to “adapt … or become unviable,” cautions Taylor.

Zimbabwe’s bleeding economy remains the biggest roadblock to success. Rising costs of imported inputs “will challenge viability,” says Taylor. The country’s cash-flow crisis has hit farmers hard. And it’s too early to tell whether Mugabe’s ouster will herald a change in Zimbabwe’s macroeconomic fortunes.

But for tobacco farmers, the industry’s growing success is already proving transformative. “People who used to be destitute now have access to drinking water and solar electricity,” says Mlambo.

Globally, tobacco is viewed as the facilitator of diseases that kill more than 7 million people every year. For Zimbabwe, it may just turn out to be a cure.

* Correction: The original version of this story implied that no farms remain in white farmers’ hands.

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