HARARE, ZIMBABWE — The growers move through aisles of tobacco leaves along the warehouse floor, eyes focused on the small paper bid sheets atop each bale. Some say the leaves they are selling look brown, but others insist they are gold. It’s hard to take in the rich aroma of fresh dried tobacco and not equate it with money.
Grower Nickel Madongo watches the prices offered for his harvest – $3 per kilogram (about $1.37 per pound) – and smiles, though he thought it should be more.
“I put in a lot of effort to ensure that the tobacco is of high quality,” he says. He has brought nine bales of tobacco, and each weighs about 45 kilograms (99 pounds).
His $3 per kilogram offer ended up coming in a little higher than the $2.90 average so far this year.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
Madongo, 35, a farmer from Zimbabwe’s northern area of Hurungwe, says he still raises corn, but that’s only to eat. “To access money,” he says, “we are focusing on tobacco.”
And he is not alone. An additional 15,000 farmers signed up to grow the money-making crop this year, says Isheunesu Moyo, the public relations and communication manager for the Tobacco Industry & Marketing Board, a regulatory authority that manages the nation’s tobacco farming and sales.
Tobacco is one of Zimbabwe’s most profitable agricultural exports and is a major contributor of foreign currency. In 2014, tobacco farming contributed $773.8 million in revenue, growing to $840 million in 2015 and to $930 million in 2016, according to the Tobacco Industry & Marketing Board, a regulatory authority that manages the nation’s tobacco farming and sales. Last year it was Zimbabwe’s second largest export after the first category, which consisted of gold, precious stones and metals, according to the website Trading Economics. The 2017 total has not yet been released.
Small-scale farmers are the largest contributors of tobacco sold, with 70,581 small farmers producing 40 percent of the total tobacco sold; medium-scale growers contribute 22 percent and large-scale farmers contribute 38 percent, according to the tobacco board. The amount of tobacco-planted land has doubled since 1980, when about 64,310 hectares (158,913 acres) of tobacco were planted, to 128,454 (317,416 acres) in 2016.
“Some are producing tobacco as part of crop rotation, and some are producing tobacco not necessarily abandoning what they were doing, but producing tobacco as a cash crop whilst they are producing food crops that they need for their sustenance,” Moyo says.
Moyo says growing tobacco is profitable. About $2,000 worth of inputs are needed to produce a hectare (about 2.5 acres) of tobacco, which has an average profit of about $4,000, he says.
Though the business is growing, tobacco farmers faced new challenges this spring. In the past, farmers received cash for their crops. But this season the government decreed that growers would have the funds deposited into their bank accounts.
“We are not happy,” says Governor Musakasa, a grower from Bindura in northern Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland Central province, where much of the nation’s tobacco is grown. “It takes [a] long [time] to get money and there is no cash at banks.”
Evelyn Chigumbura, a tobacco farmer from Mashonaland’s Guruve district, about 153 kilometres (95 miles) from Harare, says she slept at a local tobacco auction company for two weeks without receiving her money.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ Zimbabwe
“We were told it will take 72 hours for the money to reflect in our bank accounts, but now it has been two weeks since I came here. I can’t go back without my money, the bank I use is not there in Guruve,” says Chigumbura.
Growers were further disgruntled when the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority announced in March that a 10 percent tax would be withheld from growers who lacked tax clearance certificates. However, this measure was reversed after many growers complained.
Moyo says delayed payments were due to cash challenges faced by the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe. “We have no influence on the cash shortage issue,” says Moyo.
Linda Mujuru, GPJ, translated some interviews from Shona to English.