HARARE – Tobacco production in Zimbabwe is overshadowing the glitter of diamonds in the country by contributing more to the economy than most commodities.
The golden leaf which has emerged in the past few years as one of Zimbabwe’s largest exports, accounting for a third of all foreign currency earnings, along with gold and other mineral commodities is expected to earn the country over $1 billion this year benefitting thousands of small-scale farmers.
Last year tobacco exports raked in nearly $800 million.
Figures released by the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) show that at least 90 172 farmers have registered to grow tobacco this year compared to over 39 000 last year.
“Tobacco is changing lives in Zimbabwe,” said Rudo Boka, Boka Tobacco Auction Floors chief executive.
“We have people who some few years ago couldn’t afford to have a decent meal but can now afford to buy cars and modern furniture,” she said.
Diamond revenue on the other hand continues to be shrouded in secrecy amid reports by Partnership Africa Canada, a member of the Kimberley Process that at least $2 billion of diamonds have been stolen by people linked to ZanuPF party.
According to Finance minister Tendai Biti diamonds in Zimbabwe have only benefited the well-connected elite.
“We have people with degrees of looting and stealing,” Biti said.
“Our diamond exports last year were $800 million and only $45 million came to Zimbabwe.
“Why are those running diamond firms not patriots or nationalists when they belong to a nationalist party? Predatory and primitive accumulation is destroying this country.
“The cancer of this economy is corruption,” Biti said.
However, over the past few years many unemployed people in the country have turned to tobacco production which was a sanctuary for white commercial farmers.
At the turn of the millennium the golden leaf reached an all-time high of tobacco production at 237 million kg.
Nonetheless, the sector was destabilised following the haphazard land reform and re-distribution programme embarked upon in 2000.
This affected production of crops such as tobacco, with output figures tumbling to record lows.
In the seven years following the start of the violent seizures in 2000, Zimbabwe’s world rank as an exporter of top-grade or flue-cured tobacco slipped to sixth from second.
However, involvement of overseas companies has helped Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry recover.
Rudo, who runs one of the world’s largest tobacco sales floors, said she is fulfilling her father Roger Boka’s dream of empowering marginalised Zimbabweans.
“Tobacco used to be an elite crop, only for whites,” she said with a wide grin. “Now it is for everybody.
“It is a beautiful sight.”
Last year Boka paid over $60 million to over 22 000 farmers and this year alone has so far cashed out $56 million to tobacco farmers with the selling season only half way through.
The hustling and bustling, which is the order of the day underneath the cavernous roof of the Boka Tobacco Auction Floors, is a refreshing site from the chronic levels of economic inactivity in the country.
Each day, hundreds of farmers arrived in minibuses and on the back of pickup trucks, many with wives and children in tow.
“They camped in open fields nearby and swarmed to the inharmonious floor to sell their crop. The place is always lively and crowded.”
“This is my seventh year growing tobacco and I can safely say the crop has significantly changed my life,” said a visibly excited 53 year-old Monica Chitima, a resettled farmer from Mvurwi.
“If you commit yourself to the work and diligently follow all the required processes you can find out that farming is not hard after all. I have just sold my bale for $4,99 and there is more at home,” said Kachere at Boka Tobacco Auctions Floors.
The success of these small-scale farmers has led some experts to reassess the legacy of Zimbabwe’s forced land redistribution, even as they condemn its violence and destruction.
The takeover of white commercial farms was a disaster for Zimbabwe in many respects.
It undermined one of Africa’s sturdiest economies, and as growth contracted and its currency became worthless because of hyperinflation, joblessness and hunger grew.
Large chunks of land were handed to cronies of President Robert Mugabe, many of whom did not farm them.
It spurred a political crisis and violent reprisals by the security forces that killed hundreds of people.
Yields on food and cash crops plummeted.
But amid that pain, tens of thousands of people got small farm plots under land reform, and in recent years many of these new farmers overcame early struggles to fare pretty well.
With little choice but to work the land, the small-scale farmers have made a go for it, producing yields that do not match those of the white farmers whose land they were given, but are far from the disaster many anticipated, some analysts and scholars say.
“We cannot make excuses for the way it was carried out,” said Ian Scoones, an expert on farming at the University of Sussex who has been intensively studying land reform in Zimbabwe for the past decade.
“But there are many myths that have taken hold that land reform has been an unmitigated disaster that all the land has been taken over by cronies in the ruling party, that the whole thing has been a huge mess.
It has not. Nor has it been a roaring success,” said Scoones.
The result has been a broad, painful, shift of wealth in agriculture from white commercial growers on huge farms to black farmers on much smaller plots of land.
Last year, these farmers shared $400 million worth of tobacco, according to the African Institute for Agrarian Studies, earning on average $6 000 each, a vast sum to most Zimbabweans. – John Kachembere