Tobacco production in Zim: Unsustainability and risks

According to Zimstats 2023, tobacco production in Zimbabwe supports up to 160 000 households and accounts for more than 50% of agricultural exports contributing to 10% of the national gross domestic product (GDP).

BASED on the 2022 Trademap statistics, Zimbabwe remains the number one producer of tobacco on the African continent. It is ranked sixth after China, India, Brazil, the United States of America (USA) and Indonesia with the tobacco produced in Zimbabwe remaining a favourite as it is a flavourant.

Most tobacco growers are located in agro-ecological farming region two and three within Mashonaland West and Mashonaland Central province with the tobacco value chain contributing significantly to economic growth in the country.

The history of tobacco in Zimbabwe as the country's largest foreign exchange earner is significant and undisputed, dating back to the colonial era. Below is an encapsulated overview of the history and importance of tobacco in Zimbabwe:

Colonial era

Tobacco production in Zimbabwe has a long history that can be traced back to the colonial period when the British established commercial tobacco farming in the country.

The fertile soils and favourable climate of Zimbabwe made it an ideal location for growing high-quality tobacco, which quickly became a valuable export commodity.

Economic importance

Tobacco has traditionally been one of Zimbabwe's main agricultural exports and a crucial source of foreign exchange earnings for the country.The revenue generated from tobacco exports has played a significant role in supporting Zimbabwe's economy, contributing to government revenue, employment opportunities, and rural livelihoods.

International reputation

Zimbabwe's tobacco has gained a reputation for its high quality and unique flavour profiles, particularly in the flue-cured tobacco market.The country has been known for producing premium tobacco that is sought after by international buyers and tobacco manufacturers around the world.

Role in Agriculture

Tobacco cultivation has been a major driver of agricultural development in Zimbabwe, with many smallholder farmers and large-scale commercial farms engaged in tobacco production. The tobacco industry has provided farmers with a reliable source of income and has supported the growth of related industries, such as tobacco processing and packaging.

Government support

The Zimbabwean government has historically supported the tobacco industry through various policies, subsidies, and incentives to promote production and export of tobacco. Government interventions, such as price support schemes and marketing arrangements have been aimed at ensuring that tobacco remains a lucrative crop for farmers.

Challenges and controversies

Despite its economic importance, the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe has faced challenges and controversies, including issues related to labour practices, environmental impact, and health concerns associated with tobacco farming and consumption. The reliance on tobacco as a primary export crop has also exposed Zimbabwe to risks associated with fluctuations in global tobacco prices and changes in international trade regulations. The history of tobacco in Zimbabwe as the largest foreign exchange earner reflects its significant role in the country's economy, agricultural sector, and international trade.

While tobacco has played a crucial role in Zimbabwe's economic development, it is important to consider the sustainability and long-term implications of relying heavily on tobacco production as a primary source of foreign exchange earnings.

Escalation of commitment

The benefits associated with tobacco production in Zimbabwe has created conditions where there has been an “escalation of commitment” to an industry which Zimbabwe ought to be proactive about moving away from. Any further commitment to produce tobacco in Zimbabwe is a bad decision. It is misguided, wrong and an act of poor judgement because it is not going to serve Zimbabwe well in the future.

One of the reasons that “escalation of commitment” occurs is the illusion of having control on the future. This leads is to the discussion on escalation of commitment theory.

Escalation of commitment theory

This theory refers to the tendency for individuals or organizations to continue investing resources into a failing course of action even when evidence suggests that it may be better to cut losses and abandon the endeavour. In the context of Zimbabwe's drive to increase its output of tobacco in the coming years, the application of this theory can shed light on the potential risks and challenges associated with the country's continued emphasis on tobacco production despite concerns about sustainability, irresponsibility, and potential dangers.

Here are some key points to ponder when discussing escalation of commitment theory in relation to Zimbabwe's drive to increase its output of tobacco:

Sunk costs,

One aspect of the Escalation of Commitment Theory is the idea of sunk costs, where decision-makers may feel compelled to continue investing in a failing project to justify the resources already committed.

In the case of Zimbabwe's drive to increase tobacco output, decision-makers may be influenced by past investments in the tobacco industry, such as infrastructure, subsidies, support systems and value chain infrastructure, which could lead to a continuation of policies that promote tobacco cultivation despite potential risks.

Psychological factors

Psychological factors, such as a desire to avoid admitting failure or a belief that success is just around the corner, can also contribute to escalation of commitment.

Decision-makers in Zimbabwe's tobacco industry may be influenced by cognitive biases that lead them to overvalue the potential benefits of increasing tobacco production, while underestimating the negative consequences associated with over-reliance on tobacco in the future.

External pressures and incentives

External pressures, such as market demands, international trade agreements, and global economic trends, can also influence the escalation of commitment in the tobacco industry.

Incentives provided by the government or industry stakeholders to boost tobacco production may create a situation where decision-makers feel compelled to continue investing in tobacco cultivation, even in the face of mounting challenges.

By examining the principles of escalation of commitment theory in the context of Zimbabwe's drive to increase tobacco output, policy makers, farmers, and all value chain stakeholders can gain insights into the factors influencing decision-making processes and the potential implications for the sustainability and future development of the tobacco industry in the country.

Unsustainability of tobacco cultivation in Zimbabwe below:

Environmental impact

Tobacco cultivation is resource-intensive, requiring significant amounts of water, fertilizers, and pesticides. This can lead to soil degradation and water pollution.

Flue-cured tobacco consumes large amounts of wood starting with clearing the land for cultivation, harvesting poles and sticks for barn construction, right up to the deforestation of particularly the indigenous Msasa trees, which are the most preferred by farmers, in the curing process.

The use of agro-chemicals in tobacco farming can have long-term negative effects on soil health and biodiversity, impacting the sustainability of agriculture in Zimbabwe.

Health concerns

Tobacco farming involves exposure to harmful chemicals and pesticides, posing health risks to farmers and workers.The consumption of tobacco products also contributes to public health challenges, including increased rates of non-communicable diseases, such as cancer, respiratory illnesses, and cardiovascular diseases.

Economic vulnerability

Relying heavily on tobacco as a primary export crop makes Zimbabwe vulnerable to fluctuations in global tobacco prices and changes in international trade regulations.

The monoculture of tobacco exposes farmers to market risks and limits diversification opportunities, hindering long-term economic sustainability.

Questionable viability

Studies are emerging where it is being highlighted that not all farmers producing tobacco are realising super normal profits as is expected. In a 2021 study in Manicaland province, (Chingosho R, Dare C, van Walbeek CTobacco farming and current debt status among smallholder farmers in Manicaland province in ZimbabweTobacco Control 2021;30:610-615.), it was established that, “there is was no evidence to suggest that tobacco growing, in its current state, had benefited the tobacco farmers in Manicaland province.

“Tobacco farmers are largely victims, rather than beneficiaries, of the sector, essentially providing a strong case for government intervention to improve the conditions of tobacco farmers, either through direct intervention in the tobacco-growing sector, or by encouraging and promoting crop substitution”.

In the absence of further research in other provinces, small scale tobacco farmers could very well not be primary beneficiaries within the tobacco value chain, yet they are the ones carrying the largest burden of cropping and curing risk.

Below are the risks and dangers of relying on tobacco as a foreign currency earner:

Market volatility

Global tobacco prices are subject to fluctuations due to factors such as supply and demand dynamics, regulatory changes, and shifts in consumer preferences.

Dependence on tobacco exports for foreign currency earnings exposes Zimbabwe to market volatility and economic uncertainty.

International trade restrictions

Increased regulations on tobacco products and trade agreements aimed at reducing tobacco consumption can impact Zimbabwe's export market and foreign exchange earnings.

Compliance with international standards and regulations may pose challenges for the sustainability of the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe.

Social implications

The promotion of tobacco cultivation can perpetuate poverty cycles and socioeconomic disparities, as smallholder farmers may face challenges in accessing markets and earning fair prices for their produce.

Tobacco farming communities may also experience negative social impacts, such as child labour, exploitation of labourers, and limited access to education and healthcare services.

Below are alternatives to tobacco as a cash crop for sustainability:

Diversification of agriculture

Encouraging farmers to diversify their crops by promoting the cultivation of alternative cash crops such as chia, small grains like rapoko millet and superfood fonio, cotton, soybeans, horticultural produce, etcetera. Supporting agricultural practices that are environmentally sustainable, such as agroforestry, organic farming, and conservation agriculture is key and profitable in the long run.

Value-added agriculture

Investing in value-added processing industries to add more value to agricultural products and create additional revenue streams for farmers.Promoting agro-processing and agribusiness development to enhance the competitiveness of Zimbabwe's agriculture sector.

Export promotion

Identifying high-value export markets for non-tobacco agricultural products and supporting farmers in accessing these markets.Developing export-oriented agricultural value chains to increase the competitiveness of Zimbabwean agricultural products in international markets.


In conclusion, transitioning away from the unsustainable reliance on tobacco cultivation in Zimbabwe requires a comprehensive approach that addresses environmental, economic, and social challenges.

By promoting diversification, value addition, and export promotion in agriculture, Zimbabwe can achieve greater sustainability, resilience, and inclusivity in its agricultural sector.

  • Ndoro-Mkombachoto is a former academic and banker. She has consulted widely in strategy,  entrepreneurship and private sector development for organisations that include Seed Co Africa, Hwange Colliery, RBZ/CGC, Standard Bank of South Africa, Home Loans, IFC/World Bank, UNDP, USAid, Danida, Cida, Kellogg Foundation, among others, as a writer, property investor, developer and manager.  —  @HeartfeltwithGloria/ +263 772 236 341.

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