Tobacco plays a central role in Malawi’s economy. It accounts for 60 percent of its exports, 13 percent of its GDP and 23 percent of its total tax base.
One in five Malawian households relies substantially upon income from tobacco production. Tobacco industry provides employment to nearly 47 percent of the total labour force in Malawi—representing 1.5 million of people in direct employment.
Tobacco industry has wide-ranging effects throughout the economy. Not only does it affect farmers and manufacturers, but also wholesale businesses and retail stores.
Businesses in other industries that supply intermediate goods, inputs and services also rely on tobacco. These include companies in diverse sectors such as warehousing, paper, machinery manufacturing, advertising, transportation, and legal services. Tobacco is also the major foreign exchange earner.
One of the main challenges this tobacco industry is facing is the Anti-Smoking Lobby which the World Health Organisation (WHO) through the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) introduced. This is a healthy policy that intends to reduce the incidence of smoking-related diseases that adversely affect thousands of tobacco farmers, manufacturers, and other businesses that produce, distribute, and sell tobacco products. In setting and implementing this health policy, according to FCTC Article 5.3, parties to the FCTC are legally obligated to protect their tobacco control policies from the commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry.
Though the FCTC is a health policy, Malawi, as a whole, cannot do without tobacco because over 5 million people benefit indirectly from tobacco production. It is grown by over 350 000 smallholder farmers and the tobacco industry has propelled infrastructural development in the country. It has also been key in social responsibilities such as building of school blocks, health clinics and reforestation programmes. Tobacco is a strategic crop in Malawi: its benefits cannot be overemphasized and its importance to Malawi’s economy cannot be exaggerated.
Demand of Malawi tobacco continues to rise on the international market. In the recent past, this growth in demand has been fuelled significantly by population and income growth in developed countries like China.
These trends are expected to overwhelm the demand-depressing effects of increased taxes or non-financial programmes (i.e. advertising bans) that may be implemented in developing countries like Malawi, promoted by FCTC.
In the long-term, the number of smokers is expected to increase to 1.6 billion by 2025. The president of Tobacco Association of Malawi (Tama), Reuben Maigwa, once said: “as long as the demand for tobacco will be present out there, Malawi will not cease producing tobacco”.
The tobacco growers and supporters of tobacco growing community on World Tobacco Growers Day had their petition which stipulated that they have a right to grow a crop of their choice. A crop that continues to sustain their livelihoods in the absence of an alternative crop that is as economically viable as tobacco; a crop that can do well in varied soil types and weather conditions; a crop that continues to have the demand and they advocated that the Malawi Government should not accede to the FCTC proposal because it is irrational, ill-conceived and destructive proposal.
The International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) mobilises farmers to protest when tobacco control measures are being considered.
Finally, I would like to say that the world’s population is increasing so too are tobacco consumers, hence, I believe that though there are many negative aspects towards tobacco use such as global health effects, the tobacco industry is still the extremely industry, and has a prosperous ready market as compared to other crops. I would argue that farmers should still continue to grow tobacco and stop when its demand is no longer there.
The author is a graduate in diploma in general agriculture from Mwimba College of Agriculture in Kasungu, majoring in tobacco production