Members of Parliament (MPs) tasked to consult on the review of the new Tobacco Act (Amendment) Bill have stressed the need for a law that will protect growers from exploitation.
In an interview on Thursday following ongoing consultations, Rumphi East MP Kamlepo Kalua (People’s Party-PP), who is leading the parliamentary committee, cited the involvement of buyers in growing tobacco, the presence of intermediate buyers and contract farming as some of the challenges to be addressed if smallholder growers are to benefit from the industry.
He said: “Farmers are suffering; the industry is no longer benefiting them. In the past, we could see farmers buying bicycles, building good houses; but that is not what is happening nowadays. It’s like we are going back to the Thangata [forced labour during the colonial era] system.”
Kalua, who is also vice-chairperson of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, said the involvement of some tobacco buying firms in growing tobacco has left farmers desperate for markets, leading to exploitation.
On contract farming where tobacco buying firms provide growers with input loans, the legislator said the committee has observed that growers are accumulating unsustainable debts in the course of growing the green gold. He said this in turn forces some of them to spend their earnings on repaying loans, a situation he said is perpetuating poverty.
The Tobacco Act of 1972, among others, places several restrictions on the growing of tobacco which accounts for about 15 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).
While smallholder farmers are now allowed to grow burley tobacco, the current law goes against the provision; hence, the need for change.
During the interview, Kalua alleged that the Bill was sponsored by some buyers to skew the law in their favour.
He said: “This is why they rushed it to Parliament before making proper consultations. We protested knowing that farmers have been left on their own for too long.
“We have investigated and found out that our farmers are being exploited and there is need for us to come with an alternative solution.”
But in a separate interview, Tobacco Control Commission (TCC) chief executive officer Kayisi Sadala said he was not aware of the challenges the committee is highlighting as the regulator is yet to be furnished with a report on the findings.
He said: “The Bill is currently in Parliament and we haven’t been briefed on anything since the last meeting of Parliament.
“As far as I am concerned, the whole idea of reviewing the Tobacco Act is to ensure that farmers are protected and covered. The buyers want to know where the tobacco was grown and who grew it, if child labour was involved or not because such information is not available at auction sale. We believe that the Bill will address the challenges the industry is currently facing.”
In a recent interview with The Nation during a one-year contract signing ceremony with burley tobacco growers in Zomba, one of the buyers, JTI Malawi, defended contract farming or Integrated Production System (IPS) of growing tobacco, saying it helps growers achieve sustainable and quality tobacco production.
JTI Malawi agricultural adviser Jones Thombozi is on record as having said that through IPS, farmers have a responsibility of ensuring that they supply the desired crop while JTI has an obligation to buy required volumes and support them with extension services. JTI plans to contract farmers from 18 districts in the country.
This comes amid controversy as the firm last month stopped buying the leaf from its contracted farmers after reportedly meeting its quota.
It took tobacco stakeholders, including TCC and Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Joseph Mwanamvekha to negotiate with the firm which later bought 49 000 kilogrammes of tobacco from the farmers.
When enacted into law, the current Tobacco Bill will replace the 1972 Tobacco Act which Malawi is currently using.
The Bill was referred to the Agriculture, Trade, Statutory Corporations and Natural Resources Committee of Parliament after some lawmakers expressed reservations with what they called inadequate consultations, particularly from growers.
The committee is now consulting growers to come up with recommendations on the Bill expected to be tabled again in the next sitting of Parliament.