As tobacco, Malawiâ€™s major foreign exchange earner, continues to face challenges such as dwindling sales and the World Health Organisation (WHO) anti-smoking lobby, diversifying the local economy seems to be the only viable alternative to keep the country afloat.
Tobacco wires in about 60 percent of foreign exchange earnings and accounts for 38 percent of the countryâ€™s GDP.
But despite efforts by government to improve production and the marketing system, tobacco earnings continues to drop.
This year, for example, tobacco raked in $176.87 million (K44 billion) which represents a 40 percent drop from last yearâ€™s total sales of $293 million (K85 billion).
In view of this depressing development, Ministry of Agriculture and Food Security spokesperson Sara Tione said government is diversifying its agro-based economy by, among other things, encouraging farmers to grow groundnuts, soybeans, maize, sugarcane, rice, sweet beans, pigeon peas, cotton and to venture into dairy farming.
â€œFor a crop to attain the status of a major export earner, it requires massive investments from both the public and private sector.
â€œGroundnuts, soybeans and other crops I have mentioned are still at their infant stages, but in the long run and with proper investment, they may compete with tobacco as far as export earning is concerned. The good thing is that they can be grown across the country.
â€œApart from diversifying the agriculture sector, government is also diversifying into such as tourism and mining,â€ she said.
The ministry has also developed the Agriculture Sector Wide Approach (Aswap) which stipulates investment options to enhance productivity in the sector.
â€œWithin Aswap, we have several projects geared at promoting production and value adding. Other crucial elements are the Presidential Initiatives on legumes and livestock.
â€œThere are also other donor-funded projects that are dealing with either enhancing productivity through provision of quality seeds for rain-fed agriculture, promotion of irrigation agronomy and facilitating access to markets through infrastructure development such as roads and warehouses,â€ she said.
But Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM) president Felix Jumbe said what defines a crop as a major foreign exchange earner is the level of investment into production, processing and marketing of that crop just as the country has over the years done with tobacco.
â€œWhat we should be talking about are crops that can replace tobacco, but that will require the same magnitude of investment tobacco has enjoyed since the1940s.
â€œGeorgia in the US, for example, relies on peanut production while soybeans is a major crop in Brazil and rice in Thailand,â€ he said.
Jumbe, however, admitted that finding viable alternatives to tobacco will take time.