Zimbabwe's tobacco sector smokin' again

A worker has a smoke break as the 2012 selling season opens on the Boka tobacco sales floor. (Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters)

A worker has a smoke break as the 2012 selling season opens on the Boka tobacco sales floor. (Philimon Bulawayo, Reuters)

A large portrait of the late tobacco baron and founder of the Boka Tobacco Auction Floors, Roger Boka, towered over the mahogany table at the centre of the boardroom. His daughter Rudo Boka, now chief executive, sat at the head of the table and looked up at the photograph.

She reflected on her father’s dream to see black Zimbabweans farm tobacco – once the preserve of the country’s 4500 white commercial farmers. “He would not believe what is happening right now had he still been alive,” she said.
He died in 1999.

Downstairs, the auction floors were a hive of activity as men and their wives – many of whom had small babies on their backs – sat on top of their bales of tobacco. A strong stench filled the air, but no one  seemed to mind and the loud chatter continued.

The black peasant farmers now dominate Zimbabwe’s four tobacco auction floors and have waded into a business that was previously the domain of white farmers.

Figures released this week by the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board show that nearly $500million has been raked in from flue-cured tobacco this season and 131million kilograms have been sold. The $485.9-million earned thus far is a 44% increase from the $337-million earned during the same period last year.

Offensive against banks
The industry board projects that at least 133-million kilograms of tobacco will be sold during this year’s marketing season, which ends in September. The government had initially estimated that 180-million kilograms would be sold, but revised its projection downwards because some farmers could not secure funding from banks to expand their operations. This issue has been at the heart of Indigenisation and Empowerment Minister Saviour Kasukuwere’s latest offensive against banks, which he accuses of denying funding to small-scale farmers.

But the competitive price of tobacco has overshadowed the challenges the industry faces and has resulted in prices averaging $3.70  a kilogram because of the high quality of the flue-cured tobacco.

The number of black tobacco farmers has also steadily grown since the dollar was introduced as the nation’s currency in February 2009 – attracted, no doubt, by the huge profits promised by the gold leaf – to the present level of 51000.

“We are not allowed to buy tobacco from anyone that is not registered. It’s an offence and so we encourage all our farmers to register first and then come and sell their crop,” said Boka.

President Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party has also used the growth in the tobacco industry as an illustration of the success of its controversial farm invasions of 2000, which were led by militant war veterans. Simon Khaya Moyo, Zanu-PF’s national chairperson, hailed the new tobacco farmers for pioneering black empowerment. “This shows that the Zanu-PF ­policy of empowerment of the people works and the new black tobacco farmers have done the nation proud. But, of course, even more could be done if they had access to funding.”   

Economist Eric Bloch said: “We are not yet at the 236-million kilograms peak production recorded in 2000, but it is also hard to ignore the positive strides being made by the new farmers to revive the tobacco industry.”

Meanwhile, dairy farmers have also chipped in to boost agricultural production, recording a 7% increase. Milk production is at nearly 55-million litres, up from 47-million litres in 2010. In 2008, at the height of the economic crisis, annual milk production had fallen to a mere million litres. At its peak production levels, Zimbabwe used to produce nearly 150-million litres of milk annually. It has 223 registered dairy operators and 12000 milking cows.

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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