Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Industry on Recovery Path after Decade of Decline

The tobacco industry in Zimbabwe is on the recovery path following a decade of decline which has seen production dipping to a low of 48.8 million kilogramme in 2008 from a peak of well over 200 million kilogramme (kg) in 2000.

The adoption of multiple currencies in 2009 ignited the recovery with about 60 million kg being produced that year, and doubling to 123 million kg the following year.

Burning Cigarette

Smoke released from a burning cigarette

In 2011, tobacco sales closed with about 131 million kg having gone under the hammer at auction and tobacco production has been the main driver behind the 34 per cent growth in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector.

The Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) has set the season’s target of tobacco output at 150 million kg from 77,000 hectares of the crop.

TIMB Chief Executive Officer Andrew Matibiri said traditionally the tobacco planting officially ended on Dec 31 but this season it was delayed because of late rains. Matibiri was, however, optimistic the production target was attainable.

“Everything is now on course and we are hoping that by the end of the official deadline the proposed target would have been reached,” he said.

The introduction of contract farming through which tobacco companies and buyers have provided training and inputs to small-scale farmers has been a major stimulant for the recovery.

A significant number of indigenous farmers who were allocated land under the agrarian reform programme are beginning to show their expertise in growing the golden leaf, although their capacities can still be enhanced further through training, access to resources and good markets and support from financial institutions.

Increasing anti-smoking lobbies, and the emergence of alternative sources of nicotine has, however, cast a shadow over future production of the crop as experts forecast an international decline in demand.

In Zimbabwe, there has recently been a serious decline in production of burley tobacco because of waning demand of the product in favour of flue-cured tobacco.

Burley tobacco is a light, air-cured tobacco used primarily for cigarette production while flue-cured tobacco is used primarily for cigarette production but is comparably preferable because of its properties.

Some developments in the global tobacco environment also weigh negatively on the local tobacco season.

A significant consideration during this year’s tobacco marketing season is a global oversupply situation, with a volume almost equivalent to the Zimbabwe national crop remaining unsold from previous years.

Meanwhile, tobacco farmers are appealing to power utility ZESA Holdings to supply reliable power for curing the crop to avoid losses.

Some farmers have already started harvesting the crop which was under irrigation.

Zimbabwe Farmers Union director Paul Zachariah said it was during the curing process when the golden leaf lost quality and weight.

“The process needs to maintain uniform temperatures as erratic supply of electricity will affect the weight and grade,” he said.

Zachariah said ZESA should put in place provisions which ensured tobacco farmers were not affected. The power utility should consider the costs that farmers would have incurred up to the curing stage, he added.

“The cost of irrigation is very high, thus farmers strive to produce the best grade that would attract higher prices.”

He said the curing process enabled farmers to stock the tobacco until the selling season opened.

Zachariah said the selling season should commence earlier this year to accommodate farmers who are harvesting the crop cultivated on irrigated land.

“This will in the long run avoid congestion at the auction floors where buyers usually take advantage of growers to offer low prices,” he said.

Meanwhile, environment analysts have urged tobacco farmers to grow woodlots for use in curing tobacco to avoid deforestation.

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