The rebound of tobacco production in Zimbabwe is striking. From a low in the mid-2000s of only around 48 million kgs, the last season produced 216 million kgs, almost hitting the levels of historical peak production 236 million kgs. Last season recorded exports of some US$450m, with Belgium and China being the major buyers. For the coming season over 75,000 farmers have registered to sell, mostly from the communal areas, but some around 27,000 from A1 resettlement farms. This is dramatically different to the pre-land reform era when tobacco production was dominated by a about 2000 large scale farms.
How does tobacco production, spread across so many farmers, affect local economies? Our studies under the Space, Markets and Employment in Agricultural Development (SMEAD) project took us to the Mvurwi area in Mazowe district. Here you cannot escape the impacts of tobacco. Those growing, mostly through contracting arrangements (nationally this was about three-quarters of all production) are linked to a number of companies who provide inputs, transport and other support. This has allowed farmers with limited capital to get going. The new farmers are employing labour, including many from the former farm compounds, and are sinking their profits into a variety of businesses, including transport and real estate. They are improving their farms and homes, and buying farm equipment. It is an intensely vibrant local economy, with spin off benefits for those running shops, beer halls, transport busineesses and offering services from hairdressing to tailoring. There are downsides too, as the growing of tobacco, and particularly its curing has negative health and environmental impacts. The destruction of local forests for curing wood has been dramatic.
Our film on tobacco in the ‘Making Markets’ series tried to capture some of this dynamic, with interviews from farmers involved at different scales, both on A1 and A2 farms. Watch it here:
There are clear challenges in the tobacco sector, but the last few years has shown that small-scale farmers, supported by contracting arrangements, can contribute high quality products, and reap the benefits of of a high value export crop. And most significantly the benefits are more widely shared than was the case before, suggesting opportunities for a much more inclusive growth pathway.