Smiles amid frowns: The case of contract tobacco farmers in Malawi

Listening to their stories one would think there is an invisible hand at play, and that words have been put into their mouth.

Kabwinja captured in his D4D Toyota Hilux pickup with his wife on the passenger seat

Kabwinja captured in his D4D Toyota Hilux pickup with his wife on the passenger seat

Kabwinja attends to a phone call as his wife stands beside their D4D Toyota Hilux pickup

Kabwinja attends to a phone call as his wife stands beside their D4D Toyota Hilux pickup

Chazama - Proud beneficiary of 2016 tobacco season stands next to his Honda-make vehical

Chazama – Proud beneficiary of 2016 tobacco season stands next to his Honda-make vehical

They are stories of immense gains from the 2016 tobacco sales – the year the nation has been awash with reported dissatisfaction from farmers on the price of the leaf.

It is only when you take the trouble to follow the farmers to their respective homes that you realize their success stories are genuine with practical evidence on the ground.

The fact-finding tour begins with three Burley tobacco farmers from Traditional Authority Chitseka in Mitundu, Lilongwe: They are Trywell Yobe Chazama, of Chilunga Village, Kabson Ekelemu Mzungu, of Chinkhadze Village, and Chakula January, of Mnjemo Village.

“From a 4-hectare-piece of land this year I have produced 92 bales and owing to the quality of the leaf, no bale sold below the average of US$2.30 per kg,” explains Chazama, 52, a proud smile on his face.

“From the proceeds, I settled all my loan and debts and used the remaining cash to buy a Honda saloon car, a 7-ton Fuso Fighter lorry and an AG 100 motor-bike.”

Chazama also has three dairy cattle, a successful groceries shop and a decent house to show for successful tobacco sales over the past 5 years.

The story is the same with Mzungu, also 52, who has over the same period made a big kill from tobacco farming.

This 2016 season, Mzungu brags about having bought a Honda saloon too, a motor cycle and he also has leased some pieces of land for further expansion of his tobacco farming.

Mzungu produced 48 bales of the leaf and, like Chazama, he claims none of his bales this year sold below the average price of US$2.30 per kg.

“From the previous two growing seasons I bought a 3-ton lorry, a 15-ton 1820 Mercedes Benz truck; and a 17-ton ERF truck which I all use for transporting tobacco to the auction,” explains Mzungu.

Of special interest is another successful story of the most youthful of the three Mitundu tobacco farmers, Chakula January, who at 34 is already a proud owner of a 7-ton Fuso Fighter, a 3-ton lorry and a modern house – all from tobacco sales over the seasons since 2011/2012.

This year, Chakula January is planting a maize mill in his area to ease long distances women cover to get their grain milled and to also increase and diversify his income base.

The common secret behind the three Mitundu farmers is one: they are all contract farmers and since they joined in 2011/2012 season they have seen their respective statuses, capital bases and profit margins grow by the year.

Another farmer who sees the 2016 tobacco sales as one of the best where prices are concerned is Shadreck Zinga Kabwinja, of Group Village Headman Zindo, TA Malili, in Lilongwe.

Kabwinja produced 54 bales which fetched him a whooping take-home of K5.4m after settling his loan of K1.9m.

He is now proud owner of a Toyota Hillux D4D which he bought at a staggering K4m and besides, the proud farmer owns a maize mill from which he rakes in an average of K20,000. per day.

Like Chazama, Mzungu and January, Kabwinja is on contract farming with JTI, one of the tobacco buyers in the country.

He got the conviction to join contract farming during the 2012/2013 season after he experienced bad sales the previous season, while those on contract farming made a kill.

“There is nothing as reliable as farming under contract because even with very little amount of rain, like has been the case lately, you rest assured that you are going to make gains,” explains Kabwinja.

“This is due to the extension services you get from the contracting company because they know exactly what they want you to produce, and how it should be produced to meet the standard their buyer over-seas looks for.”

Contract farming is a concept under the Integrated Production System (IPS) where farmers and buyers partner for the purpose of achieving optimum yields and the desired leaf quality.

The grower and the buyer thus sign a contract that enables the buyer to support the grower with all the necessary production inputs, extension services and technical advice in order to achieve the best yield from the land, and a higher quality crop year after year.

Malawi government approved IPS as a policy in 2012 and it is currently regulated by the Tobacco (Integrated Production System) Regulations of 2014 (IPS Regulations).

The IPS Regulations and policy guidelines are yet to be enacted into a law that covers the interests of both the grower and the buyer.

The farming model is currently fully practiced by major world tobacco producers among them Brazil, Argentina, Mozambique, Zambia, and Tanzania, according to a recent media interface the Tobacco Processors Association held in Lilongwe.

Mozambique is fully into IPS while in Malawi it is estimated that 80 percent of tobacco farmers are under the system.

While IPS is not compulsory to the farmers, its proponents such as, government, tobacco buyers and processors prefer and advocate for the system for many reasons.

Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) Deputy CEO, David Luka, recently told the media that although the Commission was still working on the system, it was a sure way of ensuring quality production of tobacco and also a sure means of controlling child labour, among other challenges the industry faces.

“Buyers would want to trace whether their tobacco is grown properly or not, or whether proper chemicals are being applied, and no child labour is involved and the only way to do it is to contract farmers and guide them on acceptable practices and monitor them – that’s where this IPS comes handy,” said Luka.

Although there are few farmers who are yet to embrace contract farming, the practical evidence of the system’s benefits as seen in Chazama, Mzungu, January and Kabwinja are hard to ignore.

According to the four successful farmers, the secret in contract farming is simple: adherence to the extension advice offered by the contract buyers’ field officers.

“The contract buyer provides us with the recommended varieties of seed namely; BRK2 and BRK4 and 14 bags of fertilizer per hectare for tobacco. We also receive fertilizer and hybrid seed for maize production,” explains Chazama.

He adds: “Then an extension worker makes frequent visits on each farmer and he is always by our side right from the nursery bed preparation, throughout to the field, all the way to curing and baling of the leaf.”

Chazama adds that the farmers are also advised on the proper ridge spacing and construction of box ridges to trap rain water so that even with very minimal rain fall, the tobacco leaf always thrives.

With all the dos and don’ts observed, the result is a big: fully grown tobacco plants with expanded leaves and high quality leaf that in turn fetches high price at the floors, according to the interviewed farmers.

But the contract tobacco farmers featured above and some featured before all agree on one other thing: not every contract farmer has made a kill with the green gold this year and previous years.

“We have seen fellow contract farmers making loses with their tobacco yield,” explains Kabwinja. “But often times the reason is that they did not apply all the provided bags of fertilizer on their field and that compromises the quality of the leaf.

“The amount of fertilizer the contract buyer provides is well-calculated to produce the exact quality of the leaf desired by the buyer and any temptation to cheat in the application of the input is revealed in the end-product – the leaf.”

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