The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World believes that Malawi could move on from tobacco and develop a sustainable future through a collaborative effort with all players in the industry to promote alternative value chains.
The foundation faults tobacco for causing deforestation, degrading land and loss of biodiversity.
It dials up alternatives such as soya beans and groundnuts and to improve technologies, irrigation potential and mechanisation.
However, the issue of future sustainability is more complex than it has been presented.
For example, why have Malawian farmers and farming not been sustainable and resillient?
What are the possible alternatives to tobacco? What is the level of indigenous knowledge and acceptance of the possible alternatives?
What is the scale of existing policy interventions to migrate from tobacco?
To find answers, there is need to look at the rural economy: its structure, size, spatial distribution and how it is interlinked with the international political economy.
Firstly, Malawian farmers’ decisions are greatly motivated by utility maximisation—profit-making.
There is no crop in Malawi that gives them the profit margins that can sustain their lives. Tobacco’s are five times those of either soya or groundnuts.
Tobacco remains exponentially more profitable than any alternatives, says the foundation. Is soya and groundnuts viable? How about their perennial price volatilities that render farmers poor?
Secondly, farmers’ adaptation to agricultural shocks, including climate change, has only seen lower levels of investment in human, physical and financial capital in Malawi.
This is worsened by low literacy levels among farmers—a threat to sustainability.
Tobacco enjoys relatively higher investment from contractual farming arrangements than other crops. Will future sustainability be achieved without the required levels of investments? I strongly doubt.
Thirdly, the country’s policy paralysis is a great threat to sustainability. Most policies assist farmers to cope with daily shocks, not sustainable adaptation strategies to agricultural shocks. The country’s policy landscape and scope leaves a lot in this area.
For example, the Tobacco Industry Act, which advocates contract and auction systems to run parallel to each other, creates a competitive (dis)advantage on one system over the other.
What implications does that have on sustainability?
The last threat is the double-handedness of the international community.
The international politics of tobacco control portrays that tobacco has devastating environmental and health impacts. As such, the community has developed measures to limit tobacco production and marketing.
Often, these interventions are modelled on what best fits the international community, with less regard to farmers’ concerns and the general State structure.
The emerging discourse is that crop diversification will lead to commercialisation and transform the welfare of tobacco growers and agriculture.
Yet, looking at the international market structure, the altenative crops a tobacco farmer has to embrace perform poorly. This leaves farmers with one choice: tobacco.
So, while it is plausible to talk about future sustainability, the realisation of it is far-fetched.