Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Tobacco Farms in Ruins

Eight years after controversial land seizures, the country’s once-thriving industry continues to decline.
By Chipo Sithole
Massive rotating watering systems stand gaunt and abandoned above fields of maroon buffalo weed where a thriving tobacco crop would have been budding at this time of year.

The 10-tonne brick-and-mortar tobacco processing buildings are empty and vandalised, their function usurped by the rickety wooden cribs of peasant farmers holding perhaps 100 kilogrammes of maize cobs.

Nearby, the tattered plastic sheeting over the ribs of a desolate 30-acre tobacco seed greenhouse flaps in the wind.

The owner, Richard Bedford, was reportedly forced off this highly mechanised farm by soldiers and war veterans with AK-47 assault rifles.

Bedford’s vast but now desolate tobacco plantation is one of about 20 leading tobacco farms that have been vandalised by land invaders in the Wedza district, an hour’s drive south-east of Harare.

Mashonaland East, where Wedza lies, was one of the top tobacco growing provinces in Zimbabwe. Now all that is gone.

Just eight years ago, Zimbabwe was the biggest exporter of tobacco in the world, producing 236.1 million kg a year.

This all changed in 2000, when controversial land grabs saw white commercial farmers evicted and their farms given to poor black Zimbabweans and government cronies with little knowledge or experience of farming.

In September this year, the official Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board announced that only 40.8-million kg of tobacco was produced by new indigenous farmers – less than one-sixth of what was harvested in 2000.

According to industry experts, it would take Zimbabwe about five years to regain the ground lost over the past few years and match the 2000 peak.

Mike Hinde, one of the 280 white farmers who have managed to retain their farms here, said that very few of the new farmers had met production targets.

“Most of them don’t have the capital or know-how,” he said.

Hinde said that the crop shortage was also down to a lack of government support and continued power cuts.

“The government hasn’t delivered the fertiliser and fuel it promised and electricity outages are hampering planting efforts. As a result, most of the tobacco farmers have planted late and you can’t plant tobacco after September 1 here, the yields will be hopeless,” he said.

While the number of indigenous small-scale farmers has increased, less of the top quality “lemon tobacco”, which is used to flavour cigarettes, has been grown.

“Flavour tobacco is in short supply,” said Hinde. “The longer we decline the more we will be taken out of the flavour formula.”

US-based buyers Standard Commercial, Universal and Dimon have traditionally bought the bulk of Zimbabwe’s crop to flavour cigarette brands, such as Marlboro and Camel.

However, Zimbabwean tobacco, once considered by buyers to rival US varieties, has now been excluded from blends used by the biggest cigarette makers because the quality and quantity of the crop is declining.

British American Tobacco, BAT, the biggest maker of cigarettes in Zimbabwe, recently cut 170 jobs in the country because of the dwindling crop.

China, which in the 1990s bought as much 30 million kg of lemon-style tobacco from Zimbabwe each year, will buy only five million kg this year, say officials.

The decline in the tobacco crop – once Zimbabwe’s biggest export – has deepened an economic recession in the country now in its eighth year.

Price distortions in the economy have also been cited as another reason for the sharp decline in the crop this year.

During the selling seasons, 30,000 Zimbabwe dollars, ZWD, equalled one US dollar, but valued about 20 times higher on an illegal, but thriving parallel market.

Farmers say they have to import their supplies – such as fertiliser and equipment – and pay for it with foreign currency sourced at the black market rate. But when they sell their crop overseas, the government – which receives the export proceeds – gives the farmers the equivalent amount at the official rate.

The government controls tobacco prices, and the opening of the tobacco-selling season in April was delayed for two weeks because of a disagreement between farmers and authorities over the low prices they had set.

The government eventually buckled and set the price of one kg of tobacco at 2.3 US dollars – a rise from the original one US dollar but not enough, said farmers, who clamoured for four US dollars per kg.

A month later, the auction floors ground to a halt as farmers protested against non-payment from the cash-strapped Zimbabwe government.

A proposal by government to pay farmers in cheques was shot down by the farmers, who demanded cash upfront.

The government later advised farmers at the country's three main auction floors – Burley Marketing Zimbabwe, the Tobacco Sales Floor and the Zimbabwe Tobacco Auction Centre – that they could pay cash of 5 billion ZWD and the remainder would be deposited in bank accounts, as the country was mired in a steep cash crunch.

Following the crisis at the auction floors, the government introduced special agro-cheques for the farmers, a form of promissory cheque – a document signed by a borrower promising to repay a loan under agreed terms – that can be used as money in Zimbabwe.

These cheques have since become major instruments of trade.

Observers say that another problem affecting the harvest this year was bad weather.

Two months of incessant rainfall in the area destroyed most of the crop, said Zimbabwe Tobacco Growers’ Association, ZTGA, president Julius Ngorima.

The bad harvest, said Ngorima, “was largely a result of late planting, shortage of diesel and fertiliser, and heavy rains. It’s actually a miracle that we could produce 40 million kg”.

Zimbabwe Tobacco Association president Andrew Ferreira pointed out that the ongoing land seizures in the country were another factor harming production.

Following Mugabe’s defeat in the March 29 elections, farm disruptions were reported in several areas, including the Mashonaland provinces – the heartland of Zimbabwe’s agricultural production.

“The incessant rains were largely responsible for these record low figures, but we must locate this crisis in the context of the continuing land seizures,” said Ferreira.

Economists predict that ongoing insecurity in the country makes it a high investment risk.

“Nobody wants to start investing if there is a good chance you will be given 48 hours to get off your farm,” said economist John Robertson. “There is no security, and I must say these figures are likely to continue going down.”

A commercial farmer, who cannot be named, said the bulk of small-scale producers – who account for 40 per cent of national tobacco output – produced mostly low-grade filler tobacco for which there was little global demand.

“A lot of merchants have written off Zimbabwe and taken their financing to countries like Zambia,” he said. “A lot of work still needs to be done to increase not just the quantity of our crop, but also the quality.”

Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR journalist in Zimbabwe.

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