Hungry and fatigued, with eyes fixed to the door, tobacco farmers wait in anticipation for the manager at Boka Auction Floor to occasionally appear and announce the names of those whose funds will be disbursed on the day.
By Fidelity Mhlanga
Some have spent more than five days waiting in vain. Others have just arrived with no hope of being served anytime soon.
“I have just eaten groundnuts that I brought from Karoi in the afternoon and now they’re finished and don’t have anything to eat. If I fail to find people I know here I will sleep on an empty stomach because I don’t have money to buy food,” said a farmer who prefers to be referred to Mai Courage.
Looking dejected, she says she has spent the day on an empty stomach together with her nine year-old son.
She complains that she has been reduced to a destitute in Harare after delivering her tobacco at the auction floors.
Tobacco farmers are in a desperate situation often going without food and proper accommodation as they endure several days waiting for payment.
This comes after the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) and the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (Timb) jointly issued a statement compelling all proceeds from the sale of tobacco to be paid through banks. Now the directive is having serious consequences, causing delays in the payment for the tobacco deliverd.
Although the central bank seeks to encourage banks to boost financial inclusion, the delay in the payment system has turned farmers into destitutes.
Mai Courage is not alone in this predicament. Another Karoi farmer, Michael Changachirere and his wife, are also battling severe hunger pangs.
“I arrived here two days ago. I am relying on food I brought from home but it was finished yesterday. Since then, I haven’t eaten anything. I do not have money to buy food. I do not have a close relative in Harare,” he said.
Although Changachirere said he slept in vacant rooms at the auction premises while another farmer Stone Zondo said he spent the night in an open truck with his colleagues.
“When we arrived here yesterday the six of us spent the night in an open truck because we didn’t have anywhere else to sleep,” said Zondo, a farmer from Mhangura, 180km from Harare.
Zondo said he had to endure the cold night without blankets.
With winter fast approaching, most farmers risk getting sick as there is no proper accommodation at the auction floors.
Without cash the tobacco farmers are in a lurch as they cannot return to their homes.
This situation has created the need for the auction floors to provide basic food and accommodation to avert a health disaster.
Elsewhere, business is booming. Vendors mill around the busy premises selling various wares.
One after the other, vendors approach farmers with their products ranging from foodstuffs, clothing to house utensils.
“We are scared some of the vendors who get inside here look suspicious,” said one farmer.
Desperate hawkers sell wares, hidden in opaque bags ostensibly to evade security guards manning the main entrance.
Agents from telecoms companies also take advantage of the tobacco marketing season to cajole farmers to buy subscriber identification module (SIM) cards as well as register for mobile payment systems.
Tatenda Chuma, a hawker selling foodstuff just outside the premises said she was selling mostly on credit.
“Most farmers come here without cash. We confiscate their (farmers) identification cards and give them food and they pay us after getting their money from selling tobacco,” she said
Chuma said with no formal employment vending at the tobacco floors has become her source of living for the past three years.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Wonder Chabikwa said he has engaged various stakeholders to accelerate the selling process and reduce the time spent by the farmers at the auction floors.
“We are disappointed and I don’t know how to express this.This was the scenario when the auction opened and it’s almost getting to a month now with the same problem. My appeal to auction floors is let’s try to provide better human conditions for farmers like decent meals, accommodation and address the situation,” he said.
He added that small scale farmers must be handled with care as they contribute to the country’s economic growth.
“With this situation persisting farmers must not feel they are being punished for growing tobacco. They must not suffer when they deliver the crop. These small scale farmers used their own resources and we must thank them for that because of their contribution to the gross domestic product,” he said.
Statistics from treasury show tobacco exports were only second to gold, valued at US$481 million, constituting 23% of all exports from January to October 2015. Gold exports were valued at US$ 503 million.