As we wrap up this year’s tobacco marketing season and start planning for next year’s crop, the Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) has an opportunity to clean up the mess that has been bedeviling the tobacco industry for many years.
The solution lies not in Integrated Production System (IPS) or contract farming with smallholder growers as being touted by the buyers, but in controlling tobacco production.
Indigenous and foreign growers have been overproducing the crop, and it is time we put a stop to this madness.
It is also high time Malawi abandoned the liberalised system, which allows all and sundry to grow the leaf, the main factor driving up overproduction.
This system also allows akamberembere or intermediate buyers (IBs) to take centre stage in the industry. IBs have no attachment to the leaf as a result they mess up with quality of the leaf for personal gains.
Then there is the issue of buyers wielding more power than TCC.
Word on the street is that TCC must take back the power and realise that while we want more buyers to compete for our crop, control of the market systems rests in its arms.
TCC should also not allow buyers to get away with the murder of our auction system, which has been very effective for many years. Today, the auction system is dead with figures showing that more than 80 percent of leaf is being sold on contract farming while the remainder is on auction system where oftentimes tobacco is rejected.
Most estate growers believe the auction system is the most transparent and open system for buying and selling of tobacco. What is so wrong now with the system?
Last year, I had an opportunity to be part of a team of editors who toured a tobacco factory of one of the country’s main tobacco buyers in Lilongwe. This question above was raised. The response from the buyer was political: “IPS allows me to control the quality of the leaf.” I shook my head, because on the street what he meant is that he grows own tobacco! IPS is a new market development, but local growers believe that buyers are growing tobacco under the pretext of a contract with a smallholder farmer.
That’s why I pray that TCC seizes the opportunity to stop all this nonsense. Buyers should leave tobacco growing to estate farmers, and government must reenergise institutions that control quality of tobacco. This is the time to strengthen research institutions such as Aret and Mwimba Farm Institute.
Of course, buyers have a right not to buy tobacco if the quality is poor. But that is the very reason TCC exists to ensure that standards are maintained by registering well-trained and experienced tobacco growers. We can even return to the Achikumbe system, where tobacco was grown by large estates.
Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda managed to control tobacco by not allowing every ‘Tom and Jerry, Jill and Jack’ to grow tobacco in this country. The reason was to ensure that Malawi produces the highest quality leaf. In fact, he went further to established institutions that ensured that high quality tobacco is produced. We even had Flue-Cured Tobacco Development Areas where one of the most successful institutions, the Kasungu Flue Cured Tobacco Authority (KFCTA), flourished. Here is where estate owners were groomed.
We cannot bring back the estates system all at once, but we can exert control. Because lack of tobacco control has led us to the mess we are in today. Instead of wrapping up sales in September we have over 30 million kilogrammes (kg) of tobacco still unsold when buyers clearly told us that they will only buy 132 million kg.
This should never happen again and we must stop playing politics with our main forex earner. Tobacco is a special crop.