For many years, I have followed the opening of tobacco auction floors with keen interest. I developed interest in the crop because I grew up in the industry. Anything to do with tobacco really catches my attention.
The epitome of being a tobacco grower is the day when markets open. Growers in the rural areas run to the nearest grocery store to buy batteries for their portable radios so that they can listen to assurances of improved tobacco market and policies that can inspire them to grow the crop again.
No person delivered tobacco auction opening speeches better than Mchikumbe Number One himself. Kamuzu Banda’s speeches at Kanengo were watertight. He used to seize the opportunity to lay out his agriculture-led vision for Malawi. Kamuzu loved tobacco and he gave the crop the much-needed attention.
Today, when I listen to tobacco auction opening speeches, I shake my head.
In fact, just like many other State events, what we see these days is pure comedy. Last year, the President even forgot that he was opening the tobacco marketing season. This year, it was almost the same. Our President was busy lambasting tobacco smugglers instead of dealing with the problem that forces people to smuggle out tobacco.
“I will deal with anyone found trying to smuggle tobacco out of the country. Whether it’s or not a government official, we will deal with you,” Mutharika warned on Tuesday.
As usual, on prices, the President like other presidents before him pleaded with buyers to offer good prices and “not to discriminate non-contract farmers”.
With those few remarks, he proceeded to declare the 2016/17 tobacco marketing season officially open. That was it.
That’s how carefree we have become when it comes to tobacco. APM and his DPP cronies care less about tobacco, no wonder buyers are playing with growers, the way a child plays with his father’s beards. APM’s speech lacks policy direction on tobacco.
Is it not time government gave a clear direction? How long will Malawi continue growing a crop that has no future? A crop only buyers benefit from?
But make no mistake, tobacco—until we find a replacement—is still the major export crop responsible for 60 percent of all export earnings. Out of a total population of 17 million, the majority of Malawians are farmers, and as I write, seven million or more people owe their livelihoods to the tobacco industry.
According to US government figures, while Malawi’s tobacco leaf exports have gone up, export revenue from tobacco has fallen steadily. Over the past decade, a massive increase in global tobacco production, encouraged by the tobacco industry call it contract farming, has resulted in a worldwide oversupply, and a corresponding decline in tobacco prices. This inevitably means less money for the growers.
Is this something APM can talk about?
Word on the street is that, Malawi has been growing tobacco for over 120 years and there is no way we will get over it overnight. We will be growing this cursed crop for some foreseeable future. No?
So can government for once act in the interest of growers and stop threatening them? Can the Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) have a little power to ensure a fair return for local producers?
If tobacco has become such a useless crop, then let APM and his government take serious steps to develop an alternative crop.