For ages, tobacco has been touted as Malawi’s main foreign exchange earner, but speaking when he opened this year’s tobacco marketing season on Tuesday, President Lazarus Chakwera dropped a bombshell that the industry of what is dubbed as ‘Malawi’s green gold’ is dying.
Since the late 1800s, Malawi has exported the flaunted tobacco as the gold leaf to Western nations, where it has been part of the material in popular and ubiquitous cigarette brands such as Marlboro and Camel. Yet, production has dropped drastically due to, among other things, the anti-smoking lobby.
And, on Tuesday, Chakwera brought out the harsh reality that Malawi must seek options as the tobacco smoke was vanishing into thin air.
“What must be said and accepted is that our tobacco industry is dying and we need an exit strategy to transition our farmers to crops that are more sustainable and profitable,” said Chakwera.
In the President’s words, “farmers who are supposed to reap more fruits from the leaf have been ripped off through taxes and other dubious deductions”.
Apparently, some farmers could not wait for Chakwera to make such pronouncement against a crop that has faced challenges on the market for the use of child labour. As alternatives for the national economy are being sought, at macro level, some have found power in Irish and sweet potatoes.
Chimwemwe Mhango used to grow different varieties of tobacco since 2011 in Matemanga Village Traditional Authority (T/A) Mnyaluwanga in Nkhata Bay. He is a living example of the frustrated tobacco farmers who have been ripped off Chakwera alluded to.
“In 2015, I said ‘enough is enough’. For all the efforts I put into cultivating tobacco, I was getting nothing. When coming from the market, I was having paltry sums and I was always in quarrels with the tenants as I had nothing to pay them at the end of the day,” says Mhango.
He switched to Irish potatoes in 2015, but it was only in 2019 that he started growing improved varieties and started to see real profits.
“During the last season, I put in K200 000, but I sold potato seed worth K3 million. I have built a house and I am able to send my children to school,” says Mhango.
He is one of three farmers in Chikwina Extension Planning Area (EPA) who are multiplying Irish potato seed for the benefit of other farmers.
Kasungu is one of the districts that thrived on tobacco. Today, 35-year-old Jaka Mpani is one of the farmers in Chisazima Village in T/A Kaomba’s area who have ditched tobacco. Ask village head Chisazima, she will tell you Mpani is one shining farmer in her village.
Before 2019, he used to grow different kinds of crops, including tobacco. Mpani grew tobacco on contract farming with, but he got no tangible returns.
“With tobacco on contract farming, the money earned ended up in repaying farm input loans,” says Mpani.
After making losses with tobacco, he found affection in bio-fortified orange-fleshed sweet potatoes. He multiplies the vines so that other farmers can benefit, apart from selling the roots for consumption.
Life for Mpani has changed since the switch, he asserts. During the last growing season, he put in K300 000, but sold vines and tubers at K3.5 million.
“My life has transformed and I have bought a car, a cart, two donkeys and I also opened a shop in the village. On top of that, I am able to feed my family and send my children to school,” says Mpani.
It is the same story village head Chibibi of T/A Chikowi in Zomba will tell you. Although he has not completely dumped tobacco, he is raking profits by selling sweet potato vines.
“I have been able to grow my farming with the profits I am making. I now have an irrigation pump and pipes, which has made it easier to grow potatoes throughout the year,” he says. A minibus and a new house are some of the fruits of his labour.
Yet, it is not only farmers who have ditched tobacco partially or fully that are singing new and glorious stories with potatoes.
Henderson Banda in T/A Chikumbu, Mulanje, grows improved potato varieties. Last year, he put in K700 000, but after selling, he had K7 million in his account, having sold vines to various organisations.
“In fact, I could have made K15 million since World Vision International wanted to buy the vines at that price. But since their offices were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I sold to other organisations,” says Banda, who also works as a hospital attendant.
In three months, he brought down his old house and started constructing a new, which is at roofing stage.
The farmers said they use improved Irish potato and orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties from the International Potato Centre (CIP), a research for development organisation focusing on potato, sweet potato and Andean roots, and tubers.
Through several projects, the organisation has partnered several stakeholders to delivering sustainable solutions to issues of hunger and climate change, among others.
Improved orange-fleshed sweet potato and Irish potato varieties have been introduced and released to farmers.
In a project called ‘Root and Tuber Crops for Agricultural Transformation in Malawi’ (RTC-Action), CIP is working with the Department of Agricultural Research Service (Dars).
Among types of sweet potatoes already released are Kaphulira, Ana Akwanire, Kadyaubwerere, Chipika, Royal Choice, Mthetsanjala, Msungabanja, Zondeni, Mathuthu and Semusa. Before releasing them, farmers are asked to give the names according to their benefits.
The advantages of these varieties include increased productivity, climate resilience, increased revenues, and nutrition outcomes of root and tuber crops’ value chains.
Dars roots and tubers research scientist Kennedy Masamba, based at Bvumbwe Research Station in Thyolo, says the department researches on the roots and tuber crops to improve the quality and nutritional aspect.
The orange-fleshed potatoes are high in beta-carotene, the Vitamin A precursor and also bio-fortified with zinc and iron while Irish potatoes have benefits such as controlling blood sugar levels, containing antioxidants and, apart from packed with more nutrients such as potassium, vitamins C and B6, carbohydrates and proteins, they also improve digestion.
Vitamin A is important to build bodies and protect them from illnesses.
“We are encouraging research of these important crops because that is where we are going to increase production and, also, the quality. We are also talking about the nutritional value people will get after consuming the crops,” says Masamba.
The fact that sweet and Irish potatoes have already been embraced in the country, it will only be fair that more improved varieties are pushed to farmers.
The benefits are enormous in terms of high yield and nutritional value, and farmers that have taken potato farming are benefitting a lot.
Under another project called Transforming Agriculture in Malawi (Kulima), CIP is supporting farmers to learn more technologies.
Under this project, the farmers learn several technologies on potatoes and then take the same to fellow farmers in their communities.
CIP’s research technician David Nthobwa says technologies that are there most of the times do not reach to the smallholder farmers, and wants the technologies to trickle down.
“We are giving technical advice to the farmers and also extension services providers. We have new varieties that have been released and we want all these varieties to be available to farmers across the country,” says Nthobwa.
Same efforts are being promoted at Kasungu’s Lisasadzi Residential Training Centre (RTC), where a lot of potato technologies are being tried.
All this is to make sure that potato farmers have the best varieties that will give high yield and high nutritional value.
Principal of the RTC, Fyson Chitowe, says the centre under Kulima project trains master trainers who are transferring the potato technologies to farmers.
The reason is to have more farmers who are into this kind of farming.
“The technologies are replicated by the farmers in the outreach fields called Farmers Field School (FFS),” says Chitowe.
Nutritionally, one medium size orange-fleshed sweet potato each day is enough to provide vitamin A needed by an adult and a meal of Irish potatoes every day will help curb inflammation in the body, boost immunity and healthy blood circulation. As the country promotes farming practices that will address hunger and, also, help households acquire required nutrients, orange-fleshed sweet and Irish potatoes have the potential to achieve all this.