The world struggles with the devastating environmental and health impacts of tobacco.
Malawi has been exceptionally hard-hit: Our overdependence on this crop as a major source of export revenue creates serious structural problems for an undiversified economy that lacks viable alternatives.
Tobacco has anchored Malawi’s economy for the last century, but we should not turn a blind eye to the devastating long-term impact of tobacco cultivation on the economy through deforestation, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity.
The country urgently needs to develop and implement an agricultural model that includes diverse exports.
While diversifying Malawi’s agricultural production will be challenging, the positive impact can be huge if the country prioritises production based on comparative and competitive advantages.
The country has a comparative advantage in crops such as legumes, sugar, coffee and tree nuts.
Malawi can also prioritise its agricultural production not only for exports, but also for import-substitution commodities, such as dairy products and fish.
To achieve diversification, the country must consistently apply long-term, evidence-based policies that promote productivity, commercialisation and mechanisation.
Ethiopia, Rwanda and Ghana are good examples of what is possible if there is strong political will to achieve economic transformation.
Malawi 2063 spells out the national long-term vision to become a wealthy and self-reliant industrialised upper middle-income country by 2063.
The national vision has set up a strategic roadmap delineating how we can achieve inclusive growth and agricultural transformation.
It is time to move from rhetoric to action and government’s commitment will be measured by how it aligns its budget allocation to the aspirations presented in Malawi 2063.
Achieving this goal will also require a mindset change from considering farming as a livelihood exclusively for the poor to viewing it as a business in which even smallholder farmers can generate a good income for themselves.
For too long, we have viewed most agricultural pursuits as a last resort and farming as a profession only for Malawians without other opportunities. Yet, farming can become a profitable vocation.
Despite declining global demand, some farmers will continue to grow tobacco for the foreseeable future because they are knowledgeable about its production and marketing. However, the number of contracts to grow tobacco is dropping each year.
To help farmers diversify into alternative commodities, we must invest more in identified and prioritised alternatives. Investments are needed in research, agricultural advisory services, modern farming technologies and markets.
Malawi will also need to pursue both domestic and international markets.
The next step in transitioning to a sustainable future is to implement strategies that both consider current realities and plan for less tobacco-dependent agriculture in Malawi. This transition will require collaborative efforts from many sectors, including government, tobacco companies, farmers, development partners, the private sector, nonprofits, academia and civil society.
Most importantly, the development of partner programmes must become more focused on our agricultural diversification strategies. A unified effort will place the agricultural sector on a growth trajectory to achieve Malawi 2063 goals
Collaborative efforts can also build awareness about alternative agricultural products and forms of production that can help smallholder tobacco farmers thrive in Malawi.
These alternatives include soyabeans, peanuts, bananas, coffee, macadamia nuts, honey, sesame, dairy, poultry and aquaculture fisheries.
It will also be essential to educate farmers about good agricultural practices and improved technologies, such as seed innovations, plant protection products, plant nutrition, irrigation, mechanisation, and improved breeding programmes.
The Centre for Agricultural Transformation’s Smart Farm in Lilongwe, which showcases the potential of these approaches, is one such educational initiative.
Malawi has the will and the ability to make the transition from a tobacco-dependent export base to a more diversified export economy. This shift must be accomplished with deliberation and careful planning. It is critical to ensure that every farmer in Malawi has the opportunity to diversify their farming and grow their way out of poverty.
While the Malawi 2063 goals appear distant, our success in diversifying agriculture will determine whether we have increased income, better health and reduced poverty not only today, but also for generations to come.
By Dr Candida Nakhumwa, Vice President and Country Director, Foundation for a Smoke-Free World