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Tobacco prices up in smoke

When President Robert Mugabe embarked on the infamous and chaotic land reform programme in 2000, Zanu (PF) officials and supporters immediately benefited and many recipients of land hoped to cash in on commercial farming.

Chinese buyers from Tian Ze debate tobacco quality.

Chinese buyers from Tian Ze debate tobacco quality.

Elisha Mavhezha, a small-scale tobacco farmer based in Headlands, expected handsome rewards from the just ended tobacco selling season, but instead recorded huge losses.

“I ventured into tobacco farming in anticipation of better returns, but all my hope has been transformed into nightmares. I had to sell two oxen to buy the inputs for my tobacco preparations. I used more than US$2000 in expenses for my two hectares, but when I went to Boka Tobacco Auction floors my crop fetched poor prices, a feat that forced me to sell another ox to settle my labour costs and other debts,” he said.

“These buyers are crooks. It is good as giving them our tobacco for free. They don’t want to pay good prices to us because we, as black people, are now in control of the farms. In the past whites made a lot of money through farming, but now blacks own those farms and we have failed to make money. We also want to drive new cars like what they (whites) did,” said the fuming farmer, adding that he had remained poor despite his efforts.

Forced out of business

Other farmers in the Headlands area said the poor tobacco price would force them out of tobacco farming if no corrective measures were taken before the next season. They complained that the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) was doing nothing to protect them.

Topira Mutasa, a retired colonel, who is a resettled farmer on Rungutai Farm described the situation as a “big swindle”.

“These buyers are ripping farmers off. Their acts are bent to frustrate and push farmers out of business. We are no longer able to pay transporters, our workers and bank loans,” he said.

The farmers said some of the buyers offered between 98 cents and one dollar per kilogram; a price they said was a mockery of their business. A more respectable price would be US$4 per kilogram.

“Do you think the farmers are going to plant tobacco next season when things went like that last season? This is the highest level of slave trade. Where is TIMB? Where are those farm organisations? Who will protect us then?” asked the ex-Colonel.

Ministers profit from farmers’ loss

The small-scale farmers also accused some top Zanu (PF) ministers of profiteering at the expense of the small-scale farmers.

“These buyers pay good prices of up to US$5.50 per kilogram to selected and feared Zanu (PF) cabinet ministers and officials. These ministers and senior officials have failed to protect us because they know that they are OK. What about us small-scale farmers who are powerless. Is this what the land reform is all about?” asked another tobacco small-scale farmer who requested not to be named for fear of victimization.

Popular businessman and former football personality, Lovemore Gijima Msindo, who is also a tobacco farmer said the government should bring sanity to the tobacco industry.

“The government should now subsidise the small-scale farmers that have already been ripped off. If it fails to do that then many farmers are not going to plant tobacco next season. If people quit tobacco farming it will be a disaster for the nation,” he added.

Chinese buyers unfazed

Chinese companies buying on behalf of the Chinese market said what they had been offering (US$3.60 per kilogram) was the best price.

“A number of farmers are not registered and this affects our planning capabilities. We already sourced money from international markets that is in accordance with available tobacco, that’s why we settle for these prices,” said Ting Yang, a buyer from Chinese firm, Tian Ze.

“Maybe those low offers were on poor quality tobacco,” he added. While the number of indigenous small-scale farmers has increased, less of the top quality “lemon tobacco”, which is used to flavour cigarettes, has been grown. “Flavour tobacco is in short supply,” said Nathan Harawa a resettled small scale farmer from Rusape.

US-based buyers Standard Commercial, Universal and Dimon have traditionally bought the bulk of Zimbabwe’s crop to flavour cigarette brands, such as Marlboro and Camel. However, Zimbabwean tobacco, once considered by buyers to rival US varieties, has now been excluded from blends used by the biggest cigarette makers because the quality and quantity of the crop is declining.

Some local observers interviewed said the country was at the mercy of Chinese buyers and emphasized that there was need for policy interventions to protect all stakeholders involved.

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