During his 15 years as a Malawian tobacco farmer, Boniface Namate has had to overcome many difficulties growing the plant that is the country’s biggest export earner.
Namate had banked on a bumper crop this year and had hoped the proceeds would enable him to buy a new car and even build a new house.
However, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the 56-year-old’s dreams go up in smoke.
Due to restrictions imposed to control the spread of the virus in Malawi—one of the top 10 tobacco producers—growers were barred from physically attending the auctions where prices are set.
That has left farmers feeling cheated by buyers.
“We are not operating normally as there is no interaction between the buyer and the grower. Because of this, there are trust issues,” said Betty Chinyamunyamu of the National Smallholder Farmers’ Association of Malawi.
When the auction season opened in April, Namate and other small-scale farmers said their earnings had indeed evaporated.
“The prices that came from the auction are not what we expected. We are devastated,” he said.
Burley leaf from Malawi makes up 6.6 percent of the world’s tobacco exports. Known locally as “green gold”, it is Malawi’s top crop in terms of employment. It also accounts for over 50 percent of foreign exchange earnings and 23 percent of tax revenues.
So, when its 50 000 growers suffer, the country has every reason to be worried.
Last November, the United States restricted tobacco imports from Malawi over allegations of worker exploitation and child labour.
And the coronavirus has turned up the heat on farmers even more.
Once he saw the prices being set in the first round of auctions, Namate immediately knew he was in trouble.
He had been expecting his first bales of 1 116 kilogrammes to fetch up to $1 500. Instead, he received a meagre $540.
And out of three tonnes overall from this year’s harvest, he had hoped to make around $6 000 in total. But now he says he will be lucky even to make $1 500.
“I was devastated because I had planned a lot of things with the money,” said the Ntcheu farmer.
He is even contemplating abandoning the crop altogether.
“Even my family has threatened to stop helping me in the fields if I insist on tobacco farming,” Namate said.
Another farmer Alick Munthali, who has harvested eight tonnes of tobacco in Rumphi, finds himself in a similar predicament.
“We don’t know how much the tobacco is fetching and we have no opportunity to negotiate the price with the buyer,” said Munthali, who has been growing the crop since 1989.
“It is difficult to sell your crop when you are not physically present,” he said.
Nevertheless, auctioneers and large-scale growers insist that the farmers are being short-changed by buyers.
“Farmers are not cheated on the sales,” said Felix Thole, chief executive of Tobacco Association of Malawi Farmer’s Trust, which represents large-scale growers.
He pointed out that growers continue to be represented on the market by farmers’ associations.
“Auction sales bidding continues by the individual buyers, only this time around there is no chanting of the prices. Buyers continue competing and the highest bidder gets the bale,” Thole argued.
Nevertheless, it appears the farmers now have a friend in power.
During his stint as the main opposition leader, Malawi new President Lazarus Chakwera openly stated that the farmers have been unfairly treated for years.
“The farmers have been abused,” he told AFP. “The government gets a lot of foreign earnings through this particular industry and yet the farmer is treated like a labourer that should not even prosper,” he said.