Malawi, an agro-based economy, has depended on tobacco for a number of years.
To illustrate its significance to the economy, the crop brings in about 60 percent of foreign currency earnings, employs millions of Malawians directly and indirectly and contributes 13 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP)â€”the market value of all officially recognised final goods and services produced within a country in a given period.
But now, the cropâ€™s future looks hazy because of the worldwide anti-smoking campaign and pressure from the World Health Organisationâ€™s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO-FCTC) guidelines which calls for, among others, the abolishment of tobacco growing by 2025.
Over the past few years, the cropâ€™s earnings have been dwindling and this year, earnings dropped 40 percent to $177 million (K57 billion, at the current exchange rate) from last yearâ€™s $293 million (K94 billion).
Malawi also relies on other crops such as sugar, tea, coffee and cotton for foreign exchange generation, but their contribution to the foreign currency pool is insignificant and cannot match what tobacco brings in a year.
Government has, over the years, been looking at ways of diversifying the countryâ€™s economy to expand its narrow export base, albeit at a snailâ€™s pace and not in tandem with how tobacco has been losing its stature.
Realising that legumes are an untapped potential that could contribute to foreign currency generation, government in the 2012/13 budget announced two initiatives to ramp up the generation of foreign exchange.
One of them is the promotion of special crops for the export market.
â€œUnder the special crops initiative, a total of K1.5 billion (about $4.5 million)Â has been provided for the promotion of special crops such as soya beans, pigeon peas, sugar beans, groundnuts and rice. The objective is to up-scale production of these crops mainly for export,â€ announced Finance Minister Dr Ken Lipenga when presenting the budget in Parliament in Lilongwe in June.
Experts have argued that no single crop can replace tobacco as a foreign currency earner; hence, the need to focus on a number of crops.
This, therefore, calls for government to seize the opportunity of increased demand for legumes globally to grow more of them.
â€œWe need to grow more legumes because of their global demand which has pushed up the prices on the international market. Legumes from Malawi are on high demand in the United Kingdom (UK), Kenya, South Africa, China and India,â€ said Felix Jumbe, Farmers Union of Malawi (FUM) president in a recent interview.
Government is not just sitting idle in the promotion of legumes.
Minister of Agriculture and Food Security Professor Peter Mwanza said the project to promote legume growing is on track and that the five-year initiative, is expected to benefit 175 000 farmers in this yearâ€™s financial year.
â€œIn the 2012/13 budget, we are targeting 25 000 hectares of land to be under legume production. We plan to realise 25 000 metric tons of legumes at the end of the year,â€ he said.
Mwanza said government plans to spend K13.5 billion (about $41 million) in five years under special crops project, adding that government has already identified markets for the crops and that farmers will be assisted on how to export.
â€œThis is an initiative that will help government generate the much-needed forex. It will also help to create employment for a number of farmers in Malawi,â€ he said.
The National Association of Smallholder Farmers (Nasfam) last year indicated there is a huge market for legumes in UK, but said quality of the local products is critical to meet international standards.
A recent study by Wellness and Agriculture for Life Advancement (Wala) also found that pigeon peas locally called nandolo is one of the crops that can form part of the diversification strategy.
Malawiâ€™s challenge over the years has been meeting the quality standards for the international market and also the lack of capacity to meet specified quantities.
In October this year, an Indian firm, Alfa Corporation, indicated it has opened up the market for Malawiâ€™s pigeon peas and is looking for suppliers of the crop.
â€œWe are one of the major importers of pigeon peas in India. We have a stable and strong market for all years. We are looking for new suppliers of pigeon peas from Peru, Burma, Tanzania, Kenya and Malawi,â€ a statement from the companyâ€™s website said.
It remains to be seen if the special crops project will achieve the intended purpose as envisioned by government taking into account the quality and supply constraints that Malawian farmers encounter.