As days fast approach another tobacco market season, the leaf growers’ anxiety gets to a high notch given the hitches that marred the market last season.
The 2015/16 tobacco sales season arguably stands out as the season was extended up to December largely because of the high rejection rate of the leaf.
Poor quality leaf and overproduction of Malawi’s green gold have been touted as reasons for the poor showing of the leaf at the market.
But much as growers are mulling over what the market will bring this year, those under contract farming or integrated production system (IPS) are at ease. They say they have all it takes to produce quality leaf that will produce a fortune at the market.
Vumani Divelius from Lilongwe is one such grower. He says he has all it takes to produce a leaf that will attract buyers. Topping this, Divelius says is extension services he has received from the leaf technicians popularly known as alangizi.
“Tobacco is a delicate crop to handle and there is no short-cut to the final product, the leaf that can stand out in quality among the rest,” explains Divelius who comes from Chipanda Village in Traditional Authority Chimutu in Lilongwe.
“Being a farmer under contract, I have always produced the desired leaf for seven seasons now because of the consistent extension services I, together with the rest of the farmers under contract, get from leaf technicians.”
Divelius, who is under contract with JTI Leaf Malawi Limited says, rather tongue in cheek, that the growers are always closely monitored, guided and supported by leaf technicians from the company they are contracted to. According to the farmer, the leaf technicians spend all their time in the field to ensure that the quality of the leaf the buyer desires is achieved and nothing less.
Divelius echoes what almost every tobacco grower believes that fodya mpa nazare meaning ‘the most crucial stage in tobacco growing is the nursery’. He then outlines the entire process from nursery to the final stage with the flexibility and accuracy that leaves the listener whether the grower himself is not an extension service provider.
This tobacco grower looks back to the time he was growing the leaf on his own without supervision, shakes his head, a sad expression washing over his face.
“I used to miss it right from the nursery with wrong bed measurements and wrong variety of seed —mostly recycled from the previous year’s crop,” he confesses.
He adds: “As if that was not enough, the spacing of the ridges and that of the tobacco seedlings were all wrong. No wonder the yields were not any better year in, year out.”
Today Divelius would tell you that the right varieties of tobacco to grow for better yields are BRK 2 and BRK 4, which are the varieties he has been growing over the past seven years under contract.
In addition, he narrates how the leaf is nurtured from the nursery to come up with a better leaf that would fetch a fortune at the market. He says farmers under contract use mother bed system approved and tried by Agriculture Research and Extension Trust (Aret) and it produces good seedlings.
According to Divelius, recommended types of chemical and fertiliser are applied at both nursery and field to keep the seedlings free from pests, and for healthy growth of the seedling, respectively.
Within seven days after the seedlings are transplanted from the baby-beds, burley blend or Super D Compound fertiliser is applied and 14 days after applying Super D Compound, CAN fertiliser is applied and repeated for two more times after every 14 days.
Another critical stage in tobacco production is topping, which according to the grower, is the cutting of the top part of the tobacco stem to restrict further growth.
“We do not carry out topping until the stem in the field has between 20 and 22 leaves and we also apply a special chemical at the same stage,” explains Divelius. He adds: “Topping allows the applied fertiliser to spread to the leaves evenly, enriching them with nicotine while the chemical restricts the growth of suckers or budding off-shoots.”
Growers under IPS such as Divelius are also taught how to make box ridges in their tobacco field which helps in trapping rain water such that even with little rain, the fields do not run short of moisture.
From the field to the barn, the leaf needs proper handling too and according to the grower, they are advised by the leaf technicians to cut two “ripen” leaves at a time from every tobacco stem and that in the barn, the leaves should be well spaced to allow proper curing.
Other than leaf management from the nursery to the field and to the barn and beyond, another interesting thing, according to Divelius, is the companies’ care for the growers’ health and the environment.
“We are always advised not to work in the field without putting on protective clothing which includes long-sleeve clothing to ensure the skin is not in contact with green leaves because the nicotine in the leaves can cause what is known as Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS),” explains the grower.
He continues: “For the safety of our environment, all the bottles and packets of chemicals we use from the nursery to the very end are kept in a safe place and handed over to the company for proper disposal in the end, we do not dispose of the materials on our own.”
Of great importance is the fact that Divelius and the rest of his fellow growers under contract are strictly advised against child labour. At no stage of the tobacco growing process do they use children to carry out any tobacco-related task.
With all the dos and don’ts well taken care of from nursery to field and later to barn; with proper grading and no inclusion of any non-tobacco related materials to the leaf, the leaf of every contract farmer like Divelius is as good as sold at the floors, challenges Divelius.
It is such rich technical expertise in handling the leaf from nursery to baling as taught by the field officers that has left contract farmers such as Divelius always walking out of the floors smiling and send their children to school after all their debts with the company are settled.
“I can hardly wait for the opening of the tobacco markets this year because I am confident that this will be another year of success given how my tobacco is faring on a one and a half hectare. In fact, I expect from it not less than 23 bales as one hectare produces 15 bales on average,” explains Divelius, seemingly hopeful.
He adds: “It is my hope again, like it is the hope of every contract farmer, that this year our contract buyer will offer even more competitive price for the leaf so that we go home smiling wider than ever before.”