The big man in Zimbabwe tobacco is Dr Andrew Matibiri, the chief executive of the tobacco industry marketing board, which has presided over tobacco auctions in the country since 1936.
"Call him Dr Matibiri if you want to get anywhere," an industry insider warned, sparking visions of a megalomaniac in a three-piece suit.
The man who ushered me into the organisation's boardroom was, however, unerringly polite and helpful. He was also fresh from addressing the annual Imara Investing in Africa Conference in early June in Harare, and was brimming with the excitement of Zimbabwe's tobacco story.
"It has been a remarkable recovery," Matibiri began. "From a 30-year low of 48-million kilograms in 2008, our estimate is that we will end the 2013 season having sold 170-million kilograms of tobacco."
This represents earnings of $629-million, all of which Matibiri calls "fresh money", since the 12 or so tobacco merchants that are active in Harare are not allowed to borrow from local banks.
To explain how this surge in production came about, Matibiri goes back to 2000 – the year 1700 of the country's white commercial farmers produced most of a bumper harvest of 237-million kilograms.
"That was the apex of the large-scale commercial model in agriculture," says Matibiri.
"The next year the government launched an aggressive land reform programme, and most of those large-scale farmers had their land partitioned off and handed over to local people, and of course production fell sharply as a result," he says.
The collapse of commercial agriculture drove the Zimbabwean dollar into a state of hyperinflation between 2004 and 2009. The government tried to control this partly by fixing the tobacco price, a move which turned farmers off tobacco. In 2009 there was a slight change of politics – long-time rulers Zanu-PF were forced to form a unity government with the Movement for Democratic Change – and this enabled the country to dump its worthless currency and adopt the US dollar. A greater number of tobacco growers was suddenly able to access finance, and production began to soar.
These reforms don't fully explain the speed of the recovery, however.
"The force driving tobacco's recovery is the eastern marketing system," says Matibiri.
"Prior to 2005 our tobacco was mostly destined for Europe, where demand was stagnating, but now the Chinese have come in very strongly and have woken up the market."
China became the largest buyer of Zimbabwe's tobacco in 2009, and Chinese merchants have since paid the highest average prices for it: more than $7 a kilogram in 2011, and over $8 in 2012, whereas the average price paid for tobacco in 2013 was under $4.
"In addition to dollarisation and Chinese demand it is important to acknowledge two other factors that have contributed to growth: the rise of the contract farming system, driven by the tobacco merchants, and the outcome of the land reform process itself, which has seen tobacco's production base switch from around 6500 units in 2000, 1700 of which were large-scale farmers, to over 90000 mainly small-scale units," says Matibiri.
Contract farming in Zimbabwe is essentially a product of land reform, because in the absence of title – resettled farmers do not have title deeds for their farms – the country's banks have refused to lend money to farmers.
From 2004, this prompted the tobacco merchants – who desperately required tobacco to keep their processing operations alive – to provide finance, inputs and technical expertise to the new farmers in return for the sale of their crops. Contract farming accounted for 65% of all tobacco sales in 2013, and looks set to remain a major driver of production for years to come.
The number of growers looks set to rise too. Matibiri says: "The country's resettled small-scale farmers have been observing their tobacco-growing neighbours returning from the auction floors with goods and money, and they are turning to tobacco in a nearly exponential way."
Realities behind the numbers
The total amount of tobacco sold at the close of auctions on July 5 was about 160-million kilograms valued at nearly $590-million, quite short of the anticipated 170-million kilograms.
Additionally, the number of growing units in 2013 was not, in fact, 91000, as Matibiri claims. That's the number of registered growers.
Only 75373 farmers delivered tobacco this year, and if you believe the Commercial Farmers' Union president Charles Taffs, even this number is misleading because it conceals the rampant practice of side marketing, "which is when nonfarming friends and family members of farmers register independently as growers in order for the farmer to be able to access better prices than those offered by his contractor".
Still, there is no denying that the growth in grower numbers has been phenomenal. Sales of tobacco seed for the 2014 season, for example, are up more than 30% from last year.
The government has been claiming tobacco's recovery as evidence that land reform has succeeded. However, out in the countryside a more complicated picture emerges. About a third of the country's tobacco crop is still grown by white farmers, either on their own farms or on leased land.
"Some of them are making a killing," says a former Zimbabwe Tobacco Association leader, who preferred not to be named.
"But on the other hand, costs have spiralled out of control on the commercial level and a lot of guys who thought they could grow a smaller area and still make money have failed this season," he says.
One such struggling farmer is George White*, who farms tobacco on sandy soils north of Harare.
"Since 2002 a total of 49 people have attempted to take our farm away from us but today I can honestly say our more pressing problems are financial," he says.
"It cost us just under $17000 to produce each of our 50 hectares of tobacco, because after the collapse of the industry all inputs are imported, and because the infrastructure we rely on has generally collapsed. For example, we were without electricity for 51 days this season," he says.
Ahead of the 2013 season White took a loan of $970 000 from the merchant for whom he contract farms, but has come up $40 000 short.
"Our quality of life has taken a massive dive, such that nobody in the area tries to squeeze us for hand-outs any more," he says.
Zimbabwe's black commercial farmers are having an even harder time.
"This category of farmer is a particularly big problem because so few of them had agricultural skills when they received their properties. They generally failed to maintain things like irrigation capacity, and so the potential of these farms is well down," says Stuart Shayinka of the marketing board.
Commercial tobacco farmer Edson Makina, who was allocated the 400-hectare Herni farm in Mashonaland East in 2004, is an exception. Makina studied tobacco production at one of the country's agricultural colleges, and went on to manage a large-scale commercial farm for many years.
"Farming has to be a passion. From the day you hold the seed to the day you stand on the auction floor you have to be in it 100%," says Makina, who farms under contract to Tian Ze, a subsidiary of China Tobacco.
"They deliver inputs on time, help me to meet my machinery requirements, and their officers are trained agronomists," he says, but adds that it "hurts" that his loans are called in all at once at the end of the season, instead of the repayments being structured over time, as would be the case with a bank loan.
"It's misleading to say that agriculture has recovered in this country. For that to happen we're going to need the banks to come back into agriculture, and we're going to need sanctions to be lifted so that the European market opens up to us again," he says.
Down the road from Makina's farm, which he has renamed Mwanamutapa after the 14th century empire that built Great Zimbabwe, is Kinforth Farm. Here, dozens of resettled farmers are curing tobacco in the former white owner's barns. They are struggling.
"Access to inputs and machinery comes too late for us, and so we don't get our yield," says Godfrey Mpezeni, who worked as a security guard in Harare prior to being allocated a six-hectare plot in 2002.
Merlvern Marowa, who spent more time unemployed than employed in his former life, says the electricity supply to the farm was shut off after land reform, and so farmers have had to wood-cure their tobacco in a barn not designed for this purpose.
"This affects the quality of our product. Some people have got as much as $5 a kilogram this year, but most are below $3, and some are getting as low as $1.20," he says.
Newspapers have reported that small-scale farmers are getting yields of 2 000kg a hectare but the extension officer responsible for Kinforth and nine other farms, Barbara Mugabe, explains that the average yield in the Beatrice District was around 800kg a hectare for small-scale farmers, and 1 200kg a hectare for commercial farmers. She explains that her A1 farmers grow an average of two hectares each season at an average cost of $1500 per hectare.
At the season's average price for A1 farmers – $3.50 – Mugabe's farmers are likely to make less than $2 600 profit from their crop, and this is generally all the money they will earn in a year. Although this equates to less than $8 a day, it is twice what Mpezeni made as a security guard.
"Another problem is the fact that they are not growing food crops, because at the current maize price it is not attractive for them. This means that their food requirements must come out of their tobacco earnings, and that the nation's food security is at risk," Mugabe says.
"We have no electricity and coal is too expensive, so we burn trees," says Mpezeni, pointing out the Msasa branches crackling in the boiler furnace outside the Kinforth curing barn.
Deforestation is an issue which threatens to halt and perhaps even reverse the recovery of tobacco production in Zimbabwe.
In 2011, Zimbabwe's forestry commission estimated that the country was losing 330 000 hectares of woodland annually, naming tobacco as the major industrial contributor. This is a major problem for the country's 12 or so merchants, most of which are subsidiaries of, or dedicated suppliers to, the big international tobacco houses such as Phillip Morris (Zimbabwe Leaf Tobacco), British American Tobacco (Northern Tobacco), and China Tobacco (Tian Ze).
"These listed mega companies have to be able to assure retailers that their product is being farmed sustainably, but the truth of the matter is that tobacco has not been farmed sustainably in Zimbabwe since land reform, and the problem is getting worse," says a former leader of the tobacco association.
Zimbabwe's merchants have attempted a range of amelioration measures, such as encouraging their contractors to establish woodlots, but the impact has been "superficial at best", according to Chemist Gumbi, deputy director of the forestry commission.
In 2013, the buyers have attempted to collectively address the issue, by voluntarily accepting a $1.50 levy on every bale of tobacco sold.
"To see that this is effectively used the industry formed the sustainable afforestation programme, with the idea of establishing eucalyptus woodlots, which will hopefully mature in six years' time," Matibiri explains.
A study was commissioned to quantify the scale of the problem. The researchers used remote sensing technology to model biomass on satellite images from 1986 and 2008, and to determine a rate of deforestation for these areas. The results were shocking.
According to one of the merchant staffers who attended the report's presentation to industry heads, "the merchant bosses shat themselves, and immediately wished they hadn't commissioned the report".
At the deforestation rate worked out by the researchers, the sample sites would all be devoid of trees by 2016 or even sooner, given that the rate of deforestation becomes exponential.
The obvious implication was that the woodlots the industry aimed to establish would be three or four years too late to save the country's indigenous forests.
A 2011 Forestry Commission study found that about 10m3 of wood is required to produce 1 000kg of cured tobacco, and that a one-hectare woodlot of seven-year-old eucalyptus produces about 30m3 of wood. An average small-scale farmer produces between 800kg to 1 000kg of tobacco a hectare, which means that for every three hectares of tobacco grown, one hectare of mature eucalyptus is required each year.
"The industry has estimated that 35 000 hectares of mature trees are required each year to meet current curing needs. It's simply not going to happen," says a former leader of the tobacco association, who said the only solution would be to get coal to the farmers.
Matts Mbanga, who has developed woodlots on behalf of Tribac Tobacco, says the afforestation project's forecasts also overlook certain crucial constraints.
"The success rate in terms of seedlings becoming established plants is only about 15%, no matter which of the merchants' forestry programmes you look at. And yet all their equations assume a 100% success rate."
The industry has decided to push ahead with its woodlot strategy anyway.
From the air
It is obvious, even according to their own data, that unless the industry comes up with another strategy the tobacco production areas will become completely deforested. The forestry commission's 2011 report is explicit about the consequences for agriculture: general land degradation, exacerbation of climate change impacts, reduction in water supply – both quality and quantity – and desertification.
A four-hour flight over the country's major growing areas – a band stretching from Marondera to the east of Harare to Mount Darwin to the north – brings home the complexity of the problem.
Vast tracts of land lie carved up into fields of a few hectares, with the only surviving trees clustered around homesteads or in unreachable gullies. The once densely wooded Zambezi escarpment is criss-crossed with loggers' paths. Yet new structures are rising everywhere, some attired with solar panels, others with satellite dishes, all thanks to tobacco and, undeniably, land reform.
The author would like to acknowledge Landbouweekblad's role in financing his agricultural research in Zimbabwe in June and July