During the official opening of the 2021 Tobacco Marketing Season in Lilongwe on Tuesday this week, President Lazarus Chakwera made a bold admission that tobacco is a dying industry.
I describe the statement as bold because most of Chakwera’s predecessors skirted around the issue and mostly dwelt on the grooved record of finding an alternative to tobacco. In fact, some of them were in denial that tobacco is in its sunset years.
From the 1990s when the anti-smoking lobby started growing and later when the World Health Organisation (WHO) introduced its Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the fortunes for the country’s main foreign exchange earner have been dwindling.
National Statistical Office figures show that in the past decade earnings from tobacco declined by 45 percent from $433 million in 2009 to $237 million in 2019. In fact, in 2020 Malawi earned a paltry $165 million.
Production in terms of volumes has also declined with some farmers in recent years moving on to other crops they find more profitable.
The situation on the ground is gloomy. Trading centres and towns that thrived when tobacco was the ‘green gold’ before getting rusty, as it were, are now shadows of their old selves.
When tobacco was the ‘green gold’ some farmers were able to walk into motor vehicle franchise dealer showrooms and buy brand new vehicles, mostly pick-ups, with earnings from their leaf. Today, that is history and, in fact, many farmers end up with huge debts that they struggle to buy inputs for the next season.
The President has put it well that “our tobacco industry is a dying industry and in need of an exit strategy to transition our farmers to crops that are more sustainable and more profitable”. Reforms such as cutting out the middleman (dobadoba) for allegedly compromising quality and eventually affecting prices as well as adopting the Integrated Production System have not helped much to resuscitate the tobacco industry.
What is needed now is action, action and more action to actualise the said transition. We have talked about “an alternative to tobacco” for a long time.
Being an agro-based economy, agricultural produce dominates our export basket with tobacco, sugar, tea and coffee accounting for the largest exports for the economy. But most of the crops we rely on as a country for exports are facing one challenge or another on the international market. The obstacles range from restrictions to tumbling prices.
However, there are other high value crops such as pigeon peas (nandolo) which need good value addition to fetch more and meet the demand on the international market. Investment in such areas would be ideal.
If truth be told, there will not be one single crop to replace tobacco. It will have to be a whole basket with value addition, not the raw exports we tend to specialise in.
To move to that, strong political-will should be demonstrated through aggressive implementation of policies. It is inspiring that the President has boldly set the pace, but the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
Tobacco’s contribution to the Malawi economy cannot be downplayed. The tobacco industry is the largest employer offering jobs to millions and contributes significantly to the agriculture gross domestic product.
Yes, tobacco is on the deathbed, but we cannot completely dust it off. In the twilight years of tobacco, it is important that stakeholders, especially farmers, invest in quality leaf to fetch better prices while at the same time exploring alternatives.