Investing in dams is cushioning rural tobacco farmers from effects of climate change, JAMES CHAVULA writes.
In February, Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) executive director Albert Changaya forewarned about the likelihood of erratic rains reducing the quality and quantity of the green gold, which contributes nearly 75 percent of forex in the country.
Droughts and dry spells are no longer unusual as southern Africa is said to be at risk of climate change. While gravity and policy responses have been mainly driven by debates among scientists, the insights of the rural poor have been largely neglected or muted.
For John Tembo, 50, the side effects are alarming. He rates the previous two years as some of the most disastrous years since he started growing tobacco in Samuel Nhlane Village, Mzimba.
“Previously, the rains used to start in October,” he said in an interview in his remote locality five kilometres to the west of Jenda Trading Centre.
The early rains “that make mangoes ripen” and “put out bushfires” start falling in November, but they got it in December this growing season.
“It was not just late, but erratic, with weeks of dry spells leaving our fields almost scorched,” he recounted.
His wilting crops point to another year of food insecurity, with nearly three million poor Malawians enduring what President Peter Mutharika aptly terms as one of the worst food crises in the country.
“When the rains got-off to the belated start, the rivers were almost dry and the tobacco nursery was frail, dying and, well past the planting size. Most of it died as we carried it from the nursery bed to the fields almost six kilometres away,” he recalled.
The situation mirrors the plight of hundreds of tobacco growers in the pastoral communities as streams dry in the face of repeated dry spells. For the smallholder farmers, the bleak future is telling as waning harvests are no longer uncommon.
But the people with gloomy prospects are facing the future with hope. Last summer, while the farmers were waiting for rains, Alliance One Tobacco was constructing a K42 million dam, which offers nearly 100 Malawians and 24 clubs in Kamatowo easy access to water for nurseries, irrigation and livestock grazing.
The tobacco buying company has constructed eight dams countrywide in partnership with its major leaf importers Imperial Tobacco Group and Philip Morris International. Kamatowo aside, they include Chikulamchere, Kabanga, Mpale, Nambuma, Kamanda and Chilanga.
“The dams have been constructed at a total cost of $565 000 and they are assisting over 10 000 smallholder tobacco farmers in Mzimba, Kasungu, Dowa and Ntchisi,” says Alliance One corporate affairs manager Francis Malila.
In Mzimba, the farmers, who get farm inputs on loan contract with Alliance One, are upbeat about Kamatowo Earth Dam.
Speaking of the dam funded by Imperial Tobacco Group, Tembo said: “This is one of the fruits of the partnership that IPS [integrated production system] entails. The companies have ways of giving back what they earn from our leaf. The most interesting thing is that we no longer have to travel long distances in search of water when we want to water our tobacco nurseries,” he says.
In their minds, the locals envisage the dam bringing nursery beds closer to their farms and helping innovating farmers grow tobacco and delve into irrigation farming.
Nearly 90 in 100 farmers in the country rely on rain-fed agriculture, a tradition that exposes them to chronic food insecurity and poverty as harvests face a drastic drop due to unreliable rain pattern and other effects of climate change. The farmers surrounding Kamatowo are optimistic to unleash the irrigation potential of a fast-drying Ngundu valley in the area with trees far apart.
Equally positive are those in proximity to Chikulamchere about 40km west of Rumphi Boma. The earth dam under construction is circled by bare mountains.
Allan Kayira, who owns 10 hectares of tobacco, is one of almost 400 growers expected to tap water from Chikulamchere.
“We used to waste a lot of energy and time walking up to 5km to get water for our seedlings,” he says.
He also visualises livelihoods getting better as the members of the 40 clubs in the scheme delve into winter cropping, especially maize and vegetables for sale.
“Besides attaining two harvests a year, we are sure our livestock will have a reliable grazing ground around the dam,” he says.
Contract farming is credited with protecting the environment as well as labour rights by ensuring every leaf is free from farming practices that leave forests up in smoke and employment of children and ill-treatment of workers.Alliance One encourages the establishment of woodlots and growing of trees in straight lines to form ‘life barns’ that prevent farmers from invading forests for poles and sticks used for drying the golden leaf.
Besides, growers of flue-cured tobacco receive nearly 36 cubic metres of logs from Viphya Forest per hectare. The dams and trees on the farms offer hope to many rural areas where almost 85 in 100 Malawians live, with many relying on the rain-based farming.
At Kampala Estate in Traditional Authority (T/A) M’mbelwa, Alliance One has gifted Boyd Ndlovu a massive tank for rain harvesting. He thanks the company for making life of rural farmers easier.
He says: Agriculture is nothing without water. That’s why we say water is life.” n