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February 09, 2012

Africa’s mixed tobacco fortunes

Several African countries grow tobacco in low quantities. A few are large producers for whom the crop is an important part of agriculture and the economy. Yet it is a product that most African countries make at least half-hearted attempts to discourage their citizens from using, on health grounds.

Recent tobacco-related developments in three countries, Malawi, Senegal and Zimbabwe, show the contradictions Africa faces over a lucrative export crop that is also a known human health hazard.

Senegal is not a grower of tobacco, but up to one in three adults and 20% of young people are said to be smokers. Except for warning signs on cigarette packs and advertising, there are no high profile anti-smoking campaigns as in some countries. However, there was uproar in December 2011 when major cigarette company Philip Morris International slashed the price of its Marlboro products in what it says was a move to be competitive with other brands on the market. The price of a pack of 20 went from about US$1.25 to about 80cents. The same packet is said to cost more than $7 in some markets in Europe, and to average $6 in the US.

The response was immediate and widespread. If smoking is mostly well tolerated, this was seen as a renewed assault on public health, especially of impressionable young people, who would find it much easier to purchase a leading cigarette brand.

For Malawi, tobacco is a vitally important crop, and accounts for 60% of its exports. The projection by Tobacco Association of Malawi (TAMA) president Reuben Maigwa that this year’s harvest may have to be revised downwards by as much as 50% is therefore a grave matter for the country’s economy. This year’s so far poor rains and last year’s lackluster auction prices are given as the cause of the expected slump.

Previous efforts by the government to set floor prices for tobacco have simply led to international buyers staying away.

TAMA represents 80% of Malawi’s tobacco growers. MalawiToday.com reports that Maigwa said in his tours of traditional tobacco growing areas he had observed much lower cultivation of the crop this year.

MalawiToday.com says the Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) had initially projected tobacco production to reach 160 million kilogram in 2012. A 50% reduction of this figure would represent a huge drop from the 237 million kg total for various tobacco varieties for 2011.

Malawi is already reeling from various economic problems. The Malawi kwacha currency has dropped in value in recent months, sharply raising consumer prices and shortages. Long queues have been experienced for fuel. Frequent and long power cuts have also affected economic activity. Normally peaceful Malawi has in recent months experienced violent demonstrations against the government over economic and political disgruntlement.

A diplomatic spat with former colonial power and major donor Britain caused the latter to withdraw significant aid to Malawi. Among programmes scaled back was the country’s successful agricultural inputs subsidy scheme. It has been credited with making the once famine-prone country produce bumper maize harvests several years in a row. Poor rains during the current cropping season are also expected to cause a slump in the yield of maize, the country’s staple crop.

A 50% reduction in the tobacco crop would only compound Malawi’s economic problems, and possibly lead to more political unrest.

Zimbabwe, Malawi’s neighbor, is also a major producer of tobacco, with 50% of export earnings coming from the crop. The tobacco sector is one of the earliest farming sectors to recover from a now decade-old land reform effort, with production now mostly by small scale farmers instead of large scale commercial farmers. Another recent shift is the increasing role of Chinese companies in supporting farmers and in purchasing the crop.

The country’s best tobacco year was in pre land reform 2000, when 237 million kg of tobacco was auctioned. The lowest year was the 49 million kg of 2008. The years in between saw steadily declining production as the country faced a variety of severe economic and political problems. There has been rapid recovery since then. 60 million kg was sold in 2009, more than doubling to 123 million kg in 2010. Auctioned in 2011 were 132 million kg, according to the Zimbabwe Trade Association. The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board says the 2012 target is 150 million kg.

Whereas in Malawi low tobacco auction prices are said to be making many farmers shift to growing other crops, in Zimbabwe many farmers are abandoning other crops, including price-controlled maize, to shift to growing tobacco. 2011 auction prices averaged about US$2.70, compared to much less than $2 in Malawi. Poor rains are expected to affect all crop production in 2012, but the different needs of tobacco and maize may mean the country finding itself in the position of a relatively good tobacco harvest and a poor maize harvest.

However, the ‘green gold’ that increasing numbers of Zimbabwean farmers are flocking to growing has been blamed for encouraging deforestation. Few of the small scale farmers have access to standard coal-fired curing barns, and so they cut down trees for use in their tobacco curing.

While the agriculture and finance ministries encourage and welcome the growth of the tobacco sectors, the health and environment ministries must quietly contend with the many ill-effects on human health and the environment. These are just a few of the many contradictions that tobacco growing presents.

African Agriculture

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