Rise of black tobacco barons in Zimbabwe

Growth area: Rutendo Macheso of Hope farm in Shamva is one of a new crop of farmers (Aaron Ufumeli)

Growth area: Rutendo Macheso of Hope farm in Shamva is one of a new crop of farmers (Aaron Ufumeli)

A strong stench of tobacco fills the air at the Boka Tobacco Auction floors on the outskirts of Harare, but it does not appear to bother the new farmers eager to sell their crop. Loud chatter takes place among the groups of women seated on the cold floor, while the men stand and talk among themselves, keeping a watchful eye on their prize produce as they wait for the start of business.

A cafeteria, located at one end of the auction floor, provides hot meals for the farmers, with a sizeable queue of the hungry gathering to buy sadza and meat. The profile of the tobacco farmer has certainly changed. Gone are the predominantly white, mostly male commercial farmers. After the ­chaotic land-reform exercise in 2000, resettled small-scale farmers both male and female – some coming to the floor with their toddlers – have now waded into the tobacco business.

Upstairs are the snug and carpeted offices of the auction floor. An imposing portrait of the late founder of the auction floor, Roger Boka, towers over the large mahogany table at the centre of the boardroom. With several other photos of the tobacco baron and his family looking on in the room, one cannot shake off the feeling that the late Boka is keeping a watchful eye over his empire.

On an iPad, sales people present the figures for the day to Rudo Boka, the chief executive of Boka Tobacco Auction floor and the daughter of the late Roger. Boka says the updates give real-time information on the best selling farmer each day, the amounts in cheques paid out, those farmers who have cashed their cheques at the bank, and the amount of tobacco sold. She points out one of the highest selling tobacco farmers the previous day, with a crop worth $10 000 sold. "His crop was very good. It is likely he has some more at home and he will bring it to the auction floor."

At their peak, white commercial farmers produced 236-million kilograms of tobacco in 2000, but by 2008, production had slumped to only 48-million kilograms. Now, 90 000 newly resettled black farmers grow tobacco on between one and two hectares of land each. Last year, Zimbabwe’s tobacco exports raked in $771-million from the 144.5-million kilograms of tobacco sold at an average of $5.94 a kg. Andrew Matibiri, the chief executive of the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board, indicated that of the 90 000 newly resettled farmers that had registered to grow and sell tobacco this season, more than 20 000 black farmers were first-time growers.

Alarm bells for maize, cotton sectors
A combination of high international prices for tobacco and demand for the Zimbabwe-grown crop from foreigners such as South Africa – the highest buyer of tobacco – China and the United Arab Emirates has been the central plank for the rise of the black tobacco farmer. The price offered for other agriculture produce such as maize and cotton remains subdued, with agricultural experts sounding alarm bells that those sectors of agriculture are under threat as scores of farmers of cotton, once a prized crop, are turning to tobacco.

The cotton price is $0.35 a kilogram, while maize farmers continue to haggle with the Grain Marketing Board, the sole buyer of maize, over the payment of a sustainable price and the debt owed from last season’s crop. According to the tobacco board, 151-million kilograms of tobacco have been sold so far and the projected target for this year is 17- million kilograms from 77 910 hectares of land put under tillage. That increase would mark a 38% improvement from the 56 377 hectares under tobacco tillage last season. "We are still confident that we will get to the 170-million kilogram target," said Matibiri.

Professor Sam Moyo, the director of the African Institute for Agrarian Studies, said the quality of the tobacco crop had been steadily improving. "In the first five years, the quality was low, but in the past three years, there are now new growers and a lot more gains are possible in the future," Moyo said.

Finance Minister Tendai Biti has come under fire from Zanu-PF for not channelling more funds to support tobacco production. With no collateral, the banks have been sceptical about financing new black farmers, leaving many unable to increase their productivity.

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu

Ray Ndlovu has been a correspondent for the Mail & Guardian in Zimbabwe since 2009. His areas of interest include politics and business. With a BSc honours degree in journalism and media studies, Ray aspires to become a media mogul.   Read more from Ray Ndlovu


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