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A rejected stone in golden leaf

By Vincent Khonje

Kasungu, August 14, Mana: A small holder farmer, Loyce Nyirongo from Makanda Village in the area of Traditional Authority (TA) Mwase in Kasungu toiled all year making all efforts to grow tobacco.

This is the crop that many in the district have associated with prosperity and wealth.

She hoped that she would earn a lot from the green gold after taking her tobacco to Chinkhoma Tobacco Floors.

Nyirongo grows her tobacco under the Integrated Production System (IPS) where farmers are directly contracted by buyers and provided with extension services and inputs and then companies commit to buy predetermined volume from them.

Under this contract farming one’s expectation was that the tobacco farmer would enjoy exclusive and quality extension services thereby having very good leaf that could potentially do well on the market, but for Nyirongo it was a different story.

Her 13 bales that she sent to Chinkhoma Floors, only nine were sold and four were met with a label written RG meaning Return to Grower.

Nyirongo recalled the hassles from the nursery to the field, from the field back to the home for processing and from home to the tobacco market.

“I have made a loss out of the hard work I have done. I just don’t know why the other bales have been rejected,” she queried.

The Farmer now remains with the uphill task of getting the bales back homes.

What will she do with the tobacco bales?

“I will just use the tobacco as manure, what else can I do with it?” Nyirongo lamented. 

Another farmer, Makanda Phiri from Linga in the same area had a similar situation of having rejected tobacco bales.

He said his bales were 28 and six were not sold and the buyer indicated the bales be returned to the grower.

“I bought inputs hoping to get a good return for my tobacco. This is just a loss,” Phiri claimed.

As to what to do with the returned tobacco bales, he said there was nothing he could  do and the bales would remain at the floors.

The problem of rejected tobacco bales has hit hard mostly those who are not on contract farming.

An irate farmer, Steven Chinangwa from Madisi in TA Chakhaza in Dowa has no kind words for this year’s tobacco market.

He said 10 tobacco bales he brought to the market only five were sold and the other five returned.

Chinangwa was puzzled that with the same quality of tobacco one farmer sells while the other sees the tobacco rejected.

“With those on contract it is at least better off, but for us not on contract is worse,” he added.

The 2020 tobacco marketing season has revealed a strange phenomenon as for the first time tobacco under contract farming has been rejected in overwhelming numbers.

Over the years under contract farming there has not been huge rejection of tobacco.

The rejection rate has been averaging about a mere two percent of the sent tobacco.

However, this year there are several bales stacked at Chinkhoma Auction Floors that have been referred back to the growers, exceeding the average.

The question still remains, if that was done are the farmers going to be helped.

AHL General Manager, Graham Kunimba believes this was a big no, so there was need for a solution to help the tobacco farmers affected.

“We are planning to keep the rejected bales up until the end of the market and convert those numbers to auction system so that we sell through auction system at least they can realize some money,” he clarified.

Kunimba was baffled that the tobacco bales being rejected was the same as that was selling and only buyers could have a better reason.

Tobacco Commission (TC) which regulates tobacco industry has taken note of the issue and was equally surprised.

At this point the Commission has to take up the issue and find lasting solutions.

The Commission said the buyers are saying the rejection rate borders on the issue of quality while the farmers on the other hand farmers claim the tobacco was just of good quality.

Deputy Chief Executive Officer for TC, Levi Phelani said there would be engagement with buyers.

“As always, we will have to meet with the buyers and review some of the issues that have arisen,” he stated.

During her visit to Chinkhoma Floors, Deputy Minister of Agriculture, Agnes Nkusa Nkhoma expressed concern over the highest number of rejection rate.

She dwelled more on the hard work that involve tobacco production and just to see bales returned to the grower.

Nkusa Nkhoma said for a farmer to get tobacco to the floors there was transport, service charges and labour involved and it was pathetic to see the tobacco returned.

She assured the farmers that government was aware of the issue.

“All stakeholders have to sit down and find solution. All farmers are complaining whether on contract or not all are complaining. We need to mobilize all involved in the industry and resolve the issues,” Nkusa Nkhoma advised.

Despite farmers complaining about high rejection rate some tobacco buying companies have done well with their farmers.

Some tobacco buying companies feel the situation was not that worse as the figures are showing a slight improvement from last season.

Even though tobacco bales were rejected the other option was to re-handling and tobacco can be sold after being initially rejected.

For instance, JTI Leaf Malawi has registered slightly low rejection rate than last year and at Chinkhoma market it has rejected only 1.36 percent of the tobacco.

Growers were still able to sell after they re-handled the tobacco.

Government wants to engage all stakeholders in order to find solutions farmers are facing at the auction floors.

JTI’s Corporate Affairs and Communications Director, Limbani Kakhome said for their contract farmers there was good tobacco this year and farmers got even better prices.

“This was as a result of good agricultural practices and quality extension services,” he viewed.

Farmers are preparing for the next tobacco growing season and their plight lies in the decisions that can be made if stakeholders meet.

Otherwise for Nyirongo and other farmers they will tell the same story next year.

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