To say my boss in my previous world was a smoker is an understatement. Tobacco was to him what water is to fish. He was a chain smoker. Tobacco fragrance hit you as soon as you entered his office.
One day, this boss was bereaved and we, the lesser mortals, were duty bound to spend time at the siwa (the house where the body of the deceased is kept during the mourning ceremony). After I had sat outside the siwa for two hours, I saw the boss get up and take some steps into a secluded corner of the compound. He then lit his cigarette and puffed at it passionately.
Miraculously, the boss kicked the habit after some years. He unshackled himself from the tyranny of tobacco, a feat which many have attempted to achieve and failed miserably.
Quitting smoking is an uphill task. Successful quitters are few and far between. Be that as it may, the number of smokers worldwide is declining.
Figures given in the Statistical Journal indicate that currently 19 percent of adults in the world smoke and the figure is declining. It is projected to be 17 percent by 2030.
While this is good news for health enthusiasts, it is sour news for tobacco dependent economies like Malawi. For a long time, Malawi’s economy has been anchored by tobacco. Little wonder that it is as fragile as the commodity.
When I was on a study tour in the UK, I met and befriended a gentleman called Dr. Charles. He once asked me what the main source of Malawi’s income was. When I told him that it was tobacco, he was visibly puzzled as he could not come to terms with the fact that a commodity like tobacco could be relied upon as the major source of national income.
Our economy is as fragile as the commodity on which it depends. Some people have been suggesting that we are on the same footing economically as our neighbours. We simply are not. You cannot even begin to compare our economy to that of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique or Tanzania. Even after going through the battering that the Zimbabwean economy was subjected to, it never sank to the level of ours. Not only is Zimbabwe way ahead of us in terms of mining but also in terms of manufacturing. When I worked for a printing company, we used to import paper and other printing accessories from Zimbabwe, all made in Zimbabwe.
The economies of our neighbours are many times more robust and more resilient than our own. Just as easily as tobacco goes up in flames, any shock to our economy will easily combust it, which is why we all need to handle it with care. Shocks like the Covid-19 pandemic can easily take its toll on our economy.
The authorities in the tobacco industry keep reassuring us that tobacco trade is alive and well. At best what this does is artificially placate us. Otherwise, the writing is on the wall. We have to seriously explore alternatives to the doomed commodity.
My considered opinion is that industrial hemp holds some promise. Many articles ago, I stated that an element known as tetrahydrocannibol (THC), present in ordinary hemp (marijuana), was largely absent from industrial hemp.
The THC content of marijuana gets as high as 20 percent, making the herb psychoactive. Industrial hemp’s HTC content varies between 0.05 percent and 1 percent. As such industrial hemp cannot make anybody high. However, its growth needs to be heavily regulated to prevent unscrupulous individuals from growing the forbidden strain together with the harmless, commercial variety.
Apart from finding a viable alternative to tobacco, we should also exercise care in the way we spend locally, and utilise forex for international transactions. Programmes like the Affordable input Programme are huge guzzlers of forex. They put a great deal of strain on the already choked economy. We, therefore, must seriously consider weaning ourselves from such programmes as a matter of urgency.
As for expenditure control, government must heed to calls from the citizenry to introduce austerity measures. Such measures must be conspicuous enough to be seen by all and sundry.
There is probably not much that can be saved from the said austerity measures, but the fact that that the authorities are willing to apply such a discipline to themselves will send a strong message to the people: first that the authorities care about their plight and secondly that austerity measures are necessary in times of economic crisis. This will be a good example to the citizens who will likewise subject themselves to similar discipline.