Dejected tobacco farmers dug in their pockets in the just ended selling season to pay transport officials at auction floors to offload bales from trucks, Weekend Nation has learnt.
The farmers were asked to cough up to K1 000 ($6) per bale; translating into about K450 000 ($2 694) if one were to have 300 bales off-loaded.
The officials were demanding the alleged bribes at the time tobacco farmers were already bracing frustrations from the poor tobacco season which has seen most of them making losses or peanuts from the labour and capital intensive leaf.
Several farmers, who sold their tobacco at Chinkhoma and Lilongwe auction floors in Kasungu and Lilongwe, respectively, told Weekend Nation this week that they paid the alleged bribes to Local Transporters Association (LTA) officials.
Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) executive director Dr. Bruce Munthali on Tuesday said they will probe the alleged corruption, adding all tobacco industry players are expected to adhere to the industryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s code of practice.
He explained that LTA officials are engaged to administer transportation and delivery of tobacco at the auction floors.
Frank Filimoni, a tobacco farmer based at Mponela said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“I paid K3 500 [$20] to the transporter at Chinkhoma Auction Floors to sell my six bales of tobacco. I got about K90 000 [$538] from the sales and made a loss because I invested more than that amount.Ã¢â‚¬Â
He said in the seven years he has been growing tobacco, the just closed season was more difficult for sales because of the kickbacks.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“They leave you stranded at the auction floors if you do not pay anything. You see other growers coming and offloading their tobacco sometimes even twice in a day while your bales are stuck in a truck,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Filimoni.
Another tobacco grower, Frazier Phiri, from Kaphulu Trading Centre in Kasungu said he sold 15 bales after bribing LTA officials with K9 000 ($54). He claimed it was difficult for him to sell the leaf without paying the inducement.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“The transporter who said he needed the money to pay some officials at the auction floors to offload my tobacco bales.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I paid the money on top of the vehicle hiring charge of K500 [$3] per bale,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Phiri.
James Nkhoma, a tobacco farmer in Kasungu, said he paid K10 000 [$60] to LTA officials to sell his first 30 bales at Chinkhoma and another K15 000 [$90] to sell his second consignment of 35 bales.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I paid K4 000 [$24] to sell the last nine bales which I had,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Nkhoma.
Harold Mitawa who sold 140 bales at the just closed Lilongwe Auction Floors said LTA officials demanded K10 000 to help sell his tobacco but said he paid only K8 000 ($48).
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I approached TCC officials who assisted me to offload my tobacco at the floors,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Mitawa.
The farmers said they have complained to TCC officials and their chiefs about the transporterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s conduct.
Munthali said TCC will investigate the farmersÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ complaints, saying all players in the tobacco industry sign a code of practice.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I wish those farmers were able to come forward to TCC instead of going to the press.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We have a complaints section where people forward complaints on malpractices. There is also a tip-offs section managed by Auction Holdings Limited,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Munthali.
He said LTA is a self managed entity that administers transportation and delivery of tobacco at the auction floors.
Currently, LTA has two executive committees which are fighting in court over leadership of the association, with the new committee [task force] accusing the old committee of overstaying in office and perpetrating corruption at auction floors.
Chairperson of the task force, Sosten Chikandira, on Thursday said: Ã¢â‚¬Å“It is true that malpractice is happening at the floors. My chairmanship is fighting against that,Ã¢â‚¬Â said Chikandira.
Auction Holdings Limited chief executive officer Evans Matabwa and Tobacco Association of Malawi (Tama) executive director Felix Mkumba could not be reached for comment.