See the bigger picture on tobacco

For many years, tobacco-the country’s economic mainstay that is touted to account for about 60 percent of foreign exchange earnings-has been under threat, casting doubt regarding its future.

Through the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)-a binding treaty between the World Health Organisation (WHO) and 192 member States-tobacco advertising and smoking in public is discouraged.

In line with the convention, some European countries have already imposed plain packaging for cigarettes to make them less attractive to consumers. This is besides the warning messages inscribed on cigarette packets.

For decades now, Malawi, where tobacco contributes about 13 percent to the gross domestic product (GDP), has been “looking for alternatives to tobacco”. In the search, tourism has been thrown into the fray, so has, unsuccessfully so, paprika and other crops. However, the general conclusion has been that the country is far from finding a replacement for tobacco.

Meanwhile, prices for the leaf, touted as green gold, continue to dwindle. This year’s Tobacco Marketing Season is in progress and, 99 million kilogrammes (kg) of the 124 million kg grown, statistics show the crop has so far fetched $198.9 million. This is too little for a crop that in yester years could fetch up to $400 million.

While the country continues with its search for “alternatives to tobacco”, my attention was drawn to a story and picture published under Company Track in The Nation’s Business News section on July 18 this year. The article carried the headline ‘Minister hails Alliance One diversification drive’ and a picture of the then Deputy Minister of agriculture Aggrey Masi getting a briefing.

In the accompanying story, the minister hailed Alliance One Malawi Limited’s crop diversification initiative by growing sugar beans, maize and pigeon peas. The company’s leaf production director Ronald Ngwira said Alliance One was, in fact, currently growing more of other crops than tobacco with maize covering 260 hectares (ha) and beans taking up 120 ha.

From the story, I saw a very big picture. A disturbing picture for that matter. Here is Alliance One Malawi Limited, one of the major tobacco buying companies, “growing more of other crops than tobacco”; surely, this should call for a rethink by policymakers in terms of alternatives to tobacco.

I am not trying to be an alarmist, but, one thing I am sure about is that tobacco’s days as a main export earner are numbered. It may not be today or the next five years more, but, from the look of things, the writing is on the wall.

In Things Fall Apart, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe cited an Ibo proverb that goes: “When you see a toad jumping in broad day light, know that something is after its life.”

This proverb should provide some food for thought to our policymakers.

Put directly, there is more to the diversification than meets the eye. Remember, they say there is no smoke without fire.

It may be argued that Malawi will continue growing the crop and many cannot imagine a Malawi without tobacco. Yes, there may not be a crop to take over from tobacco yet, but it is also a fact that in countries such as India pulses are on a high demand and potential suppliers, including Malawi, are failing to meet the demand.

When all is said and done, I feel it is time to face the realities and diversify.

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