HARARE, Feb 20– The 2014 Zimbabwe tobacco selling season has officially opened with the first bale being sold for 4.85 US dollars per kilogramme at one of the auction floors in the capital, Harare.

Acting Agriculture, Mechanization and Irrigation Development Minister Dr Ignatius Chombo opened the sales at the Tobacco Sales Floor Wednesday with a bid of 6.75 per kg on the first bale to be sold. Contract tobacco sales will open on Thursday.

At the close of the 2012/13 marketing season, 166.5 million kg of tobacco had been sold at an average price of 3.70 USD per kg, realizing 616.1 million USD in sales.

The government this year is targeting output at 170 million kg after many farmers turned to tobacco, abandoning other cash crops which do not have attractive producer prices.

Dr Chombo urged banks to devise ways of extending loans to the agriculture sector other than asking for collateral security from farmers who only have 99-year leases on their land.

“Banks are not keen to accept 99-year leases as collateral in their present form. I would like to urge the banks to seriously consider other ways of lending to our farmers while the matter is being addressed,” he said.

Reports say for this agriculture season, banks lent out a total of 720 million USD, half of which went into tobacco production. However, the money was lent to contractors and merchants for on-lending to farmers, ostensibly to minimize risk to the banks.

Tobacco is expected to show a further increase for the fourth successive year, which bodes well for the economy which is expected to grow by 6.3 per cent this year, driven mainly by the mining and agriculture sectors. The agriculture sector is expected to grow by 9.0 per cent, driven largely by the tobacco sub-sector.

Dr Chombo said the government would provide catalytic financing, providing a conducive atmosphere for viable agriculture production and facilitate investment endeavours by stakeholders in the sector.

Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) Chairperson Monica Chinamasa said the tobacco industry had continued to grow with large numbers of farmers from non-traditional tobacco growing areas registering to grow tobacco for the first time.

“Presently, more than 88,000 growers have registered compared with about 65,000 who had done so at the same time last year,” she said. “Out of the registered growers, 26,000 were registering for the first time.”

Chinamasa said contractors supported more than 54 per cent of the current registered growers and funded 72 per cent of the total planted tobacco area for the 2013/ 2014 season against 68 per cent during the previous season.