The climate crisis is smoking out commercial tobacco farming in Zimbabwe, threatening the livelihoods of smallholder farmers and risking nearly US$1 billion in export earnings.
While tobacco is neither an edible nor nutritious crop, its production keeps thousands of Zimbabweans employed and fed. Tobacco is the second major foreign currency earner for the country after gold. Zimbabwe, which has been growing tobacco for more than 100 years, is Africa’s top producer and sixth in the world.
A good rainy season in 2020 boosted crop yields, but Zimbabwe’s smallholder tobacco farmers remain in a fix. Increasingly unfavorable weather has made rain-fed tobacco production a gamble that many are wary to risk. Farmers are abandoning the lucrative leaf, pressured by high production costs, limited government investment in infrastructure, poor prices paid at the auction and now extreme weather.
Though climate change is impacting commercial production of tobacco, farmers are also contributing to environmental damage through uncontrolled tree cutting for firewood used in tobacco curing. An estimated 20 percent of the country’s annual forest loss is attributed to wood used in curing tobacco.
There’s also the issue of tobacco competing with food crops. Water scarcity is an issue in Zimbabwe, caused to some extent by unfavorable and fluctuating natural conditions and by sub-optimal development and use of available resources, said Martin Moyo, scientist and country representative for the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).
“Due to high mortality rates of smoking, tobacco may be deemed as a health hazard and it is not everyone’s choice of a high value crop to promote,” he said. “When irrigated, it does compete for water resources with other food and nutrition security crops since the country’s water resources are limited. However, on a commercial point of view, growing tobacco may be of greater value.”
Up in smoke
Rain-fed tobacco has become an increasingly risky crop to grow from both a climate and a commercial perspective, a 2021 study by Agricultural Policy Research Africa (APRA) found. Tobacco farming could be extinguished if farmers do not quickly adapt to the changing climate, warned study authors Andrew Newsham, Toendepi Shonhe and Tsitsidzashe Bvute.
Shorter and more erratic rainfall episodes and increased dry spells observed in the last 40 years are pushing smallholder tobacco farmers out of business. The study documented the impact of climate change on farmers growing tobacco as a cash crop in the Mazowe District of Mashonaland Central Province, 40 kilometers north of the capital city, Harare.
The climate crisis is brewing on the back of chronic economic instability, recurring inflation and a reduction in agriculture extension support for farmers in Zimbabwe. Furthermore, linking input subsidies to political support and the low placement of Zimbabwe farmers on the international tobacco value chain have worsened the situation for tobacco farmers under rain-fed production system, researchers found.
Most of Zimbabwe’s flue-cured tobacco is exported raw, mainly to South Africa and China, with minimal processing. In 2020, Zimbabwe exported over 200 million kilograms of tobacco leaf valued at more than US$780 million.
Despite tobacco’s rich pickings, smallholder farmers engaged in contract farming have not enjoyed its fortune. In the past six years, the highest price of tobacco on the auction floors reached $4.99/kg, according to figures from the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB). Yet some farmers have realized as little as 80 cents/kg after commissions were paid to middle men and contractors.
Tobacco, a major crop grown in Zimbabwe by many small holder farmers and some beneficiaries of the land resettlement program, is under threat as a result of climate change, explained political economist Toendepi Shonhe.
He co-authored the study, which sought to understand if the benefits of growing tobacco were accruing to smallholder farmers or big corporations.
With limited productive assets to improve climate change resilience, farmers can barely adapt and are prone to climate change risks, the researchers found. They recommended investment in agricultural infrastructure and assistance for farmers to switch, in some cases, from tobacco to better adapted and commercial crops. Researchers also see a need for existing agriculture extension services to provide stronger support to smallholder tobacco farmers.
Quenching thirsty tobacco
The Global Climate Risk Index which tracks climate change impacts lists Zimbabwe as one of the countries most affected by extreme weather events in 2019, including droughts, floods and high temperatures.
“Irrigation is the way to go as farmers are able to mitigate in the event of hot spells,” advised Benjamin Kwenda, an agriculture meteorologist, noting that a switch to food crops affects farmers’ cash flows, thereby also reducing the production output of cash crops.
“Real farming is irrigation,” said farmer Isidore Guvamombe, who had aimed to use it since he first began growing the crop 20 years ago. Switching to irrigation was slow but systematic and Guvamombe started by irrigating a hectare of his crop, drawing water from a river running on his farm. Though he has been irrigating half of his 17 hectares of land since 2020, he is still discouraged by the crop’s future.
“I started switching to growing banana and mango but the frost took me back. I am now going for goats, rabbits and road runner chickens but I am definitely leaving tobacco next year,” Guvamombe said.
Tobacco production has been a seen as route of poverty for many people and a “success story” of the controversial fast-track land reform programme which Zimbabwe embarked on in 2000. There are more than 140 000 small holder tobacco growers in the country and more than 3 million people depend on tobacco production for their livelihood.
Farmers try other crops
Farmer Ellen Chipungu has shifted from tobacco to growing maize and soya beans. She benefited from the government-sponsored conservation agriculture program, Pfumvudza/Intwasa, where she received seeds, fertilizer and pesticides. In the 2020-21 season she harvested 8 tonnes of maize from four hectares, a yield she describes as poor because of limited inputs owing to high costs and low rainfall distribution in her area.
“While I am not satisfied with my harvest I cannot do tobacco unless I get a field to rent with irrigation,” said Chipungu, adding that she was getting more income from growing other crops compared to tobacco.
The last time she planted tobacco four years ago, she realized $500 profit after deducting the production costs but said she earned double that amount by growing maize, soya beans and sweet potatoes.
Tobacco leaves being cured in Zimbabwe. Photo: Busani Bafana
Shandu Gumede, a farmer in Matabeleland North province, a drought-prone region, grew tobacco in 2014 for two seasons. But she was forced to abandon the crop in the third year owing to high costs of production, low prices and heavy rains which damaged her crop.
“Due to the high input costs in tobacco farming it became a financial challenge to continue as a self-funded farmer,” Gumede recalled. Tobacco contractors were not keen to sign her up because of the long distance between her farm and the auction floor in Harare, 400km away.
“I remember first season I sold 120 bales with an average weight of 130 kgs per bale,” she said. “My best grade tobacco fetched $5/kg — at that time that was a very good price.”
But it has been different for Moses Simoko, another smallholder farmer in Mvurwi area, in the Mazowe District. He grows tobacco under irrigation.
“It has not been easy,” Simoko admitted, lamenting the high cost of fuel for the water pump to irrigate his crop.
Simoko uses a basic sprinkler system that allows him to irrigate only up to a hectare of tobacco. In the 2020-21 season he planted 2 hectares of tobacco; one hectare under irrigation and the other dryland (rainfed).
“I got 1800 kg under irrigation compared to 1000 kgs under dry land. The average price for my crop under irrigation was $3.2/kg compared to $1.5/kg on dry land,” Simoko said.
Irrigation offers hope that farmers can remain in tobacco production but researchers say more incentives are needed to bolster national tobacco production.
According to researchers, farmers without access to irrigation and inputs are abandoning tobacco production. These are farmers who are often tied into contract farming arrangements, which pay far below the market rate for tobacco produced. During the poor rains of the 2019-20 season, many farmers in Mazowe District found themselves dependent on food aid.