For some it is a health nightmare, reportedly responsible for more deaths than all illegal drugs combined.
Report by Collins Rudzuna
Others consider it a soothing drug, perfect for calming their nerves. In Zimbabwe, however, tobacco has become a source of livelihood for an estimated 71 000 black small-scale farmers.
The sight of small trucks carrying a few bales of the crop to the auction floors has become commonplace in Harare.
Most of the farmers seem reasonably happy. They can usually be seen on their way back to the farms, this time the trucks laden with all sorts of household goods, building materials and groceries.
This picture was not always this way though. Before the land reform programme was implemented at the turn of the century, most of the tobacco farmers were typically white and their operations were on a much larger scale.
It is estimated that at that time, most of Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop, including 1998’s record crop of 260 million kg, was produced by no more than 3,000 farmers.
Official forecasts from the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) place the estimated output for the 2012/13 season at 170 million kg, which if achieved would be an increase of 18% from last season. Compared with a low of 49 million kg in 2008, production of the golden leaf has by all accounts grown in leaps and bounds.
Expectations are high and some of the more optimistic pundits are already forecasting that the previous record production volumes will be surpassed in a few years.
So, aside from the messy politics related to the transition, can the shift from large scale commercial farming to small scale, subsistence farming be fairly considered successful? One may argue so, seeing as it has empowered thousands of families that were hitherto marginalised.
On the other hand, the change from large scale commercial farming to small scale subsistence farming also seems to have its own challenges.
From a labour perspective, the success of the new model is difficult to call. Estimates from the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) are that under the large scale system, tobacco farms employed about 180,000 permanent workers.
Most of the 71 000 growers who now dominate the sector use family labour and there are no reliable statistics yet on the number of workers involved. A conservative estimate of three family members per farm works out to the same number of 180 000 employed.
On this basis, the shift has neither resulted in an improvement nor deterioration in the labour situation. Other factors as the level of satisfaction amongst farmers in the industry are hard to quantify. At face value the new farmers seem more content than farm workers who worked under the old system.
One worrying aspect of the new model is that it is less technologically sophisticated than the previous one.
Not much mechanisation is employed; instead the land is tilled using ox-drawn machinery. There is no overhead irrigation – small-scale farmers wait for the rains. Also, instead of using coal burners for curing the crop, they now rely on firewood. A lot of the efficiencies of the previous system have been lost.
Without employing modern methods of farming, there is danger that even the production volumes that have been increasing will soon hit a plateau, beyond which it will be difficult to increase volumes. Yet the dilemma is that these farmers typically have no access to the sort of funding needed to mechanise.
Banks require collateral, and without title to their land, new farmers are unable to borrow to fund capital projects. Unless this problem is addressed, new tobacco farmers are doomed to forever remain small players employing primitive methods to eke out a meagre living from what could otherwise be a more lucrative enterprise.
Also associated with the methods of small scale farming is that new farmers’ land use has had a negative environmental impact. The number one gripe that tree huggers have with small-scale tobacco farmers’ small-scale curing process today is that it causes deforestation.
In most cases the trees used are indigenous hardwoods which are hard to replace and take decades to grow.
Because they have less money, small scale farmers have limited capacity to invest in modern fuel-efficient curing barns and cultivated woodlots.
So are tobacco farmers doomed to remain small-scale players with finite subsistence operations? Not if all industry stakeholders work together for the development of the sector. Government’s role is clear.
By regularising land ownership to allow farmers full title to their land, the issue of collateral will be solved and hopefully farmers will have an easier time borrowing money from banks.
Once funding is available, operations can be modernised, allowing for better efficiencies and improved profitability. Tobacco companies can also assist farmers increase operations through contract farming.
Although the contract farming model is already in use in the country, the system needs fine tuning as there have been counter accusations of contract breaches between farmers and contractors. Perhaps there is need for authorities to set certain minimum standards and a mechanism for dispute resolution.
If a workable model is found, even foreign contractors could be allowed to participate, thus bringing much needed capital into the country.
Above everyone else, the stakeholders who can develop tobacco growing are the new farmers themselves. By adopting modern methods of farming and being open to workable partnerships with other industry players, they can ensure that the success enjoyed so far is sustained into the future.
The success registered so far is undeniable. With little outside funding, small scale farmers have come from being fringe players to being the mainstay of the industry, producing ever increasing volumes of the crop.
It seems, however, that much of the volume is due mainly to growth in sheer numbers of farmers taking up tobacco farming. Adding improved technology to the equation could possibly result in previous highs being surpassed.