By Axel Klein
Historically, tobacco has been a lucrative crop for smallholder farmers across sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, global prices of the crop are now dropping, threatening the livelihoods of farmers. My colleagues and I wanted to learn how Malawians were grappling with and adapting to this shift and whether they had plans to grow alternative crops. It soon became clear during our fieldwork that tobacco is very hard to replace.
Of course, growing tobacco is not without its challenges: it is labor and input intensive, and cannot be eaten when times are hard. Further, crops that are not collected after harvest are left to spoil; and the plant is tough on the environment. Still, there is always a market for tobacco; and, though farmers receive only a fraction of revenues, they can be more or less assured of a positive financial return. Further, tobacco farmers under outgrower schemes enjoy the support of tobacco leaf companies, which grant credit, supply seeds, offer training in modern agricultural practices, and often provide social support in moments of adversity.
In Malawi, tobacco has for years been a mainstay of the rural economy and the country’s biggest foreign exchange earner. So, as consumption in premium export markets declines, and pressures mount, rural communities across the country are desperately searching for alternative incomes. In many communities, young people are drifting to the cities and into the country’s burgeoning informal sector as opportunities in industry and services remain limited. Those people who remain in the rural areas experiment with other export crops, like sugar, groundnuts or soya bean, or grow legumes to feed the fast-growing cities. But none of these alternatives command prices comparable to that of tobacco, even in a falling market.
As prices proceed on a downward spiral, alternative livelihoods are indeed scarce. Given Malawi’s stunning scenery, the tourism industry may hold potential. The country has much to offer, including beautiful game parks and the marvel of Lake Malawi, all in a country that is virtually crime free. Yet, even Malawi’s beauty has been threatened by its reliance on tobacco.
During the course of the research, we found that curing tobacco leaf over open fires requires a large volume of timber, devastating Malawi’s tree stocks. Exacerbating this problem, a fast-growing population has expanded the need for farmland and fuel. In fact, much of southern Africa is experiencing a startling rate of deforestation that has largely escaped the attention of development economists. For years, farmers in Malawi have been responding to changes in the market by exploiting their natural resource base as opposed to moving up the value chain. Large tracts across Lilongwe and Kasungu districts, key tobacco-growing regions, that only a couple of decades ago were covered by vibrant Miombo woodland have become savannah. Farmers are reporting increasing use of fertilizer to compensate for eroded topsoil.
The biggest driver of unsustainable deforestation is the demand for firewood from domestic households in the cities and by the country’s artisanal brick-burning industry. This challenge, however, may also represent a promising opportunity for tobacco farmers seeking to diversify their crops. Fuel crops, such as hemp, elephant grass or bamboo, can be used as a sustainable alternative to firewood and growing these plants could bring a form of stable revenue to smallholder farmers. Of course, this kind of change will not occur overnight. International development partners have a key role to play in providing technical support to farmers during the transition. If successful, such a shift could lift many Malawians out of poverty while also preserving the country’s beauty.
Axel Klein is a social anthropologist interested in rural development opportunities arising on the back of climate change, shifting consumer preferences and legislative reform. He is currently working with tobacco farmers in Malawi, on issues of access to essential medicines in West Africa and the trade in fake medicines, and Cannabis Licensing in Jamaica.
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