The Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) says it expects more growers of the crop next growing season since prices were better this selling year.
“We anticipate more growers to grow the crop on the back of good prices of tobacco experienced this year,” TCC acting chief executive Officer David Luka said on Wednesday.
The development is likely to surprise many in the sector as Malawi’s $165-million-a-year industry has fallen on hard times.
For the past six years, there have been a growing number of farmers complaining that they can no longer make a decent living out of the crop.
Since 2010, the industry has been hit by unstable and falling prices—which growers blame on a buyers’ cartel and contract system.
For example, during the 2015/16 tobacco marketing season Malawi realised $276 million from 195 million kilogrammes (kg) of tobacco while this year (2016-2017) the country raked in $212 million from 106 million kg of tobacco, according to data obtained from TCC.
In 2015/16 season the average price was $1.42 (about K1 022) cents while in 2016/17 season the average price was $2 (about K1 440).
The TCC CEO believes farmers will go back to growing tobacco due to poor prices for other crops especially maize, cotton, groundnuts, beans, rice and soya, which have been disappointing this year.
For instance, a kilogramme of maize has been fetching as low as K50 per kg from about K120 last year, while soya is being bought at K150 per kg from K300.
“The expectations of TCC are that we will see more farmers growing tobacco next growing season. So we have started preparations for the next growing season and currently we are registering and licensing growers to give them quotas depending on their capacity and land size,” he said.
Luka explained that the exercise started last month and it will end in December.
In a separate interview, agricultural expert Tamani Nkhono-Mvula said it was not strange that more farmers will want to grow tobacco this year because Malawian farmers grow a particular crop depending on the way it behaved on the market during the last growing season.
“I totally agree with TCC assumptions because our farmers are not organised. The problem is that these farmers do not specialise in one crop and they end up being moved by the wind [prices]. This is bad not only for the farmers but the economy, as well,” he said.
Nkhono-Mvula, who is the former executive director of Civil Society Agriculture Network (CisaNet) urged extension workers to take it upon themselves to provide necessary information to the farmers on the demand of crops within and outside the country during each growing season to avoid this year’s scenario.
In a recent study, CisaNet notes that the diversification strategy launched 30 years ago has failed, in part because of “poor dissemination of technical and economic information”.
A farmer who talked to Weekend Nation, Aaron Banda echoed this, saying he has little knowledge of crops other than maize, which he grows on a small scale for domestic consumption.
“We have little information of markets of other crops because no government extension worker has visited this area to educate us on crop diversification. I will not grow a crop I can’t sell,” he said.
TCC data shows that 40 000 farmers grew tobacco last year with a third being big estates.
A majority of growers grow Burley leaf.
Tobacco is Malawi’s economic backbone, contributing 11 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and 60 percent of its foreign exchange earnings, recent data shows.
There are 350 000 growers in the industry, which provides 80 percent of rural jobs.