The leader of Umodzi Party (UP), John Chisi, might have raised a few eyebrows when he declared, in the build-up to the 2014 tripartite elections, that his administration would replace tobacco with sunflower.
For Margaret Banda, 40, of Chawala Villlage in Traditional Authority Kalolo in Lilongwe, Chisi was spot on.
She believes this is the right time for Malawi to consider finding alternatives to tobacco despite that it has enjoyed the status of being the country’s major foreign exchange earner for decades.
The crop accounts for more than 70 percent of the country’s exports and 15 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), according to statistics from the Ministry of Industry and Trade.
Yet, its impact on the grower has not been unimpressive. Thus, both Chisi and Banda believe it is time tobacco was given the red card so that it paves way for other cash crops.
Banda adds that tobacco farming is labour intensive besides compelling farmers to over-exploit their surrounding natural resources in the process of producing the leaf.
She cites Kasungu, Dowa and Lilongwe as some of the districts where tobacco cultivation has decimated natural forests to the point that the districts now face adverse effects of climate change, including erratic rainfall patterns and general environmental degradation.
“I don’t think this would have been the case had Malawi adopted some crops such as groundnuts, sunflower and soya as our major cash crops. These crops do not require the use of trees to dry.
“They are not labour intensive as tobacco, meaning they can give a farmer ample time to concentrate on other food crops such as maize and cassava,” she explains.
Banda adds that the three crops have the unique advantage of not requiring fertilisers, which means farmers invests less, but gains more from their labour.
Rural Livelihoods and Economic Enhancement Programme (RLEEP) national programmes director, Dixon Ngwende, says the rate at which natural forests are being depleted—to pave way for tobacco production—is a matter of concern for all well-meaning Malawians.
Ngwende emphasises that it is for this reason that RLEEP decided to partner with organisations such as Bio Energy Resources Limited (BERL) and African Institute for Corporate Citizenship (AICC) to mobilise farmers slow down on tobacco production.
This, he says, would reduce fuel wood needed for drying and curing tobacco, hence the remaining forest resources would be conserved.
The organisations are instead encouraging farmers in districts such as Mchinji, Lilongwe and Kasungu to start growing alternative cash crops such as sunflower, groundnuts and soya beans.
BERL field coordinator for Lilongwe, Given Phiri, says over 8 000 farmers were mobilised in the district and have since switched to sunflower.
Phiri says BERL will provide reliable and competitive market for sunflower, which the company intends to use in the production of cooking oil.
He says: “Malawians have every reason to support this partnership because it would eventually translate into the creation of jobs, particularly when production of cooking oil starts.”
AICC field coordinator for Mchinji, Flora Supuni-Phiri, says her organisation has introduced a Revolving Seed Fund aimed at assisting groundnut farmers in the district to access certified seed.
Supuni-Phiri states that at least 200 farmers have benefited from this fund since the project rolled out in 2012.
She says the combined goal of AICC and RLEEP is to see every smallholder farmer in Mchinji turning themselves into a commercial farmer of groundnuts.
“For the few years we have been implementing this project, farmers here can testify that groundnuts have the potential to turn around their social and economic status within a few years. They testify that tobacco had held them languishing in poverty in spite of working very hard in their fields,” she narrates.
Chisi says he is excited that deliberate efforts are being taken by various players to intensify the cultivation of soya beans, groundnuts and sunflower.
He still believes that Malawi can increase its forex generation if more farmers were mobilised to adopt these crops.
“These three crops have markets everywhere in the world, meaning there is surety that annual revenue and forex being generated from tobacco can easily be tripled if cultivation of soya beans, groundnuts and sunflower is intensified.
“After all, these are types of crops that can be preserved for a long time unlike tobacco. And this is the best time Malawians should be considering to switch,” emphasises Chisi. n