Macheke farmer Jonathan Chatiza (centre), his wife Ndaizivei Gwere (left) and their daughter Pauline take a look at the tobacco crop at the official opening of the tobacco selling season at Boka Auction Floors in Harare on Wednesday. — Picture by Justin Mutenda
Leroy Dzenga Features Writer
The tobacco selling season is on and there has been a trace of optimism in the farmers.
Generous downpours and input assistance from Government have seen the quality of tobacco improving tremendously, according to farmers.
Farmers are hoping their leaf will garner more returns this year than it did the previous season.
Passmore Munemo (25), a tobacco farmer from Headlands in Manicaland, said the prices were decent, although there could be improvements.
“I planted a hectare and half of tobacco. We are still reaping the crop and from the 13 bales I came with, I have been offered good prices,” he said. “With $3 being offered for the medium leaf, it shows that if I bring the top leaf I may get about $5 per kilogramme which is a favourable price,” Munemo said.
He said feedback from the buyers signalled an improvement from last year’s yield which was criticised for its lack of quality.
“Our tobacco is better coloured than it was last year. The rain season was good. Few people selling at $3 or $4 per kilogramme last year but these are the prevailing prices this year,” said Munemo.
He, however, reckons that the incessant rains almost derailed their season.
Buyers bid for the golden leaf at the official opening of the tobacco selling season at Boka Auction Floors in Harare
“There have been complaints that our crop lacked enough fertilisers. This is true, the rains washed away the fertiliser. We could not afford to buy more,” he said.
Munemo insisted there was room for higher quality.
Mrs Merjury Mutukura (73) also lamented the effects of the excessive rains.
She grew two hectares of tobacco in Magunje, Hurungwe. Mrs Mutukura believes better rainfall forecasts would have assisted farmers to prepare for the rains.
“There was too much water in our area, our seedlings sunk and we had to buy more seed to replant,” she said, describing how leeching left her counting her losses.
Magunje has tightly compacted sandy soils which collect water at the surface.
“There was this disease which affected our crop, we could not accurately identify it but our leaves had minute dotted dry patches all over. This affected the prices. What was supposed to sell at $4 now sells at $2,50,” she said.
Her suspicions are the clogging water may have affected the roots, killing the crop before it was ready for reaping.
Despite the water and input challenges Mrs Mutukura believes this season is much better than the previous one.
“Prices are better this year though. I expect nothing less than $2 500 after selling everything,” she said.
Mrs Mutukura also welcomed the cashless method of payment saying it saves them from prowling thieves.
“We prefer our money to be deposited in banks. These $2 bond notes would have been too hard for me to carry back to Magunje. There are swipe machines where we come from,” she said, acknowledging the growth of plastic money use.
Her plea to authorities was that they should closely monitor the tobacco selling process to ensure farmers’ rights are upheld. Farmer representatives also hailed the introduction of electronic methods at the auction floors.
However, some had concerns over the way it is conducted at the auction floors.
TIMB has introduced an e-marketing system at the auction floors
Andrew Katena of Mt Darwin said he felt the grading system at the tobacco floors was not thorough. “When we came here we had different grades but they classified all of it as prime, (small) leaves which does not pay much,” he said.
There are tags known as V-numbers, these act as an identification code for farmers selling their crop.
“It is difficult to get the V-card during the marketing season. It costs $100 and that sort of money is steep for someone who has not sold anything,” Katena said.
He said although bank deposits were welcome, there should be a reasonable amount of cash given to the farmer for costs that may arise during the marketing season. “Right now I don’t even know how I am going to board the bus back to Mount Darwin. I need to rush back to collect the next lot which I left in the barns. Spending time in a bank queue would inconvenience me,” he said.
Katena said he envies those who had partnerships with tobacco companies as they have a better crop.
“We are afraid of getting assistance from companies because some have lost their properties to them. It seems those deals work for people who have large farms not communal farmers like myself,” he added.
Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union president Wonder Chabikwa said the introduction of e-marketing would improve transparency.
“How it works is — every buyer will have a device they use to bid. They will be able to see the competing bids but not the person behind them,” he said.
This will eradicate unfair collusion on the buyers’ side.
“There was suspicion that buyers were conniving to set a price ceiling before going to the sale floors. It was curious that no matter how good the leaf grade was, it would not exceed $4,99 per kilogramme,” he said.
Some buyers would be afraid to break the bank on satisfactory tobacco fearing victimisation. “From this season going forward, tobacco will be bought on merit. If the crop is good it should be paid for accordingly,” he said.
Despite the false start during the opening of the marketing season, there is optimism that it will be smooth. India has been using the same system successfully over the years.
On this season’s quality, Chabikwa said farmers had upped their grade to produce better quality tobacco.
“This season we produced a better crop and our quality has improved. Although there are various levels, we do not expect any of the prices to be at a dollar,” he said.
“The rains were heavier than usual this season but the situation is still better than the dry spell faced over the years.
“The effect of this season’s rains are dependent on the soil type. In light sandy soil areas they had problems of clogging and leaching,” Chabikwa said.
These areas include Zvimba, Guruve, Marondera and Magunje — prime tobacco areas. “The amount of rain in the country was high but it is still better than the drought season,” he said.
At the opening of the marketing season Agriculture, Mechanisation and Irrigation Development Minister Dr Joseph Made said the prices were decent, signalling good quality. “Achieving $4,60 is very good because it is still the lower leaf. With the quality going up as the season progresses, I anticipate better prices,” he said.
Minister Made appealed for farmers to be given assistance for full productivity.
He also said the e-marketing system was going ahead despite technical glitches.
Cognisant of the fact that tobacco production causes deforestation, environmentalists have called for intervention by the authorities. Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) chairperson, Mrs Monica Chinamasa applauded the intervention by Treasury to fund afforestation.
“We are delighted by this clear pronouncement by Government and as such, we will immediately embark on aggressive afforestation using the funds,” she said.
There is a sense of belief among stakeholders that this season will mark the start of the revival of local agriculture which had taken a slump to dry weather conditions.
Tobacco seems to be on the recovery path, if the farmers’ and buyers’ remarks are anything to go by.