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The tobacco selling season ended on what should have been a high note last week, had it not been for the disappointment experienced by a number of emerging farmers who tried their hands on the golden leaf but burnt their fingers due to poor crop quality and consequently poor prices.

As reported by the Financial Gazette last week, 106 127 growers registered for the 2014 season, up from 90 879 last year. This clearly demonstrates that tobacco farming has shifted from large scale to small scale. In 2000, when the country produced its biggest crop amounting to 237 million kg which earned the country US$400 million, there were only 4 500 large scale producers involved in tobacco production.

Things have therefore certainly changed, largely due to the chaotic land redistribution programme which displaced the former white farmers with blacks.The land reform programme initially resulted in a sharp fall in production, which dipped to a low of 49 million kilogrammes in 2008.Thankfully, there is a noticeable recovery in the tobacco farming sector, with volumes having this year crossed the 200-million kg mark and edging towards the peak reached in 2000. Earnings from this year’s crop reached US$636,6 million, according to figures released before the tobacco auction floors closed.

Last year, tobacco production came to 166,7 million kg worth US$610 million. The fact that a lot of black farmers have resorted to tobacco farming is itself encouraging — Zimbabwe is desperate for foreign currency to boost its struggling economy under stress from a liquidity crunch since adoption of a hard currency regime in 2009. The manufacturing sector has not been doing well, resulting in the economy importing more than it exports and therefore depleting the stock of foreign currency in the country.

So when farmers take the initiative to grow crops that help the country earn foreign currency and therefore boost liquidity (which Zimbabwe can no longer do by printing money since ditching its own currency), they should be encouraged and supported. But as we reported last week, the new tobacco farmers still face a lot of hurdles, most of which resulted in poor quality crop which did not earn them enough to recover their costs and therefore allow them to return to the land and produce another crop next year.

Most lack the necessary training, and have no facilities like barns to properly cure their tobacco and achieve a good grade. We believe government, together with other stakeholders like the Farmers’ Development Trust, should come to the rescue of these farmers by giving them the necessary support to help them grow and produce a good quality crop. Allegations by the new farmers that auctioneers were manipulating the buying process and giving them unfairly low prices should also be investigated to ensure a transparent and fair system that rewards the farmers.

Source : Financial Gazette