Malawi remains the world’s most tobacco-dependent country, with more than 48% of the country’s export value generated from tobacco leaf production in 2019. Not surprisingly, tobacco control initiatives have been challenging to advance due to the dominant role that tobacco plays in the economy. It is also not surprising that Malawi remains one of the few countries in Africa that has not ratified the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. However, things are slowly changing.

Recent research by a group of scholars from the Centre for Agricultural Research and Development, the American Cancer Society, McGill University and the University of Ottawa reveals that many institutions that were originally created to support tobacco production, now more than ever before, realize and actively demonstrate the need to shift away from tobacco.  For example, in 2019, the Tobacco Association of Malawi (TAMA), the largest tobacco grower organization in Malawi (established in 1929) rebranded to become the TAMA Farmers’ Trust. TAMA Famers’ Trust is a founding member of the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA), a grouping of tobacco associations based in Lisbon, Portugal that is supported mainly by large tobacco producers and defends tobacco interests at the global level (ostensibly in the name of growers). This group is also a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Business Council (CBC). Notably, the re-branding follows a growing realization of the slowly-declining global consumption of tobacco products and the concomitant increase in production among lower-cost producers like Malawi. The word ‘tobacco’ no longer appears in TAMA Farmers’ Trust name. The re-branding of TAMA to remove the word ‘tobacco’ in its name now permits its members to focus on other profitable agricultural value chains to supplement or replace their tobacco-based incomes. In central Malawi, where tobacco is widely grown, TAMA Farmers’ Trust is now actively supporting its members to produce soybeans and groundnuts.

Further, other tobacco-centered institutions, such as the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust (ARET), a leading public institution in the promotion of tobacco research and technology dissemination, are also promoting crop diversification for tobacco farmers. These changes demonstrate a firm realization that the future of Malawian farmers no longer lies with tobacco.

Concomitantly, the enactment of the 2019 Tobacco Industry Act has brought a lot of challenges to the management of the tobacco industry in Malawi, with several lawsuits filed by tobacco farmers targeting the government’s Tobacco Commission. Tobacco farmers, who are now becoming increasingly empowered thanks to local and international NGOs and human rights institutions operating in Malawi, are beginning to question most of the provisions in the 2019 Act. The farmers argue that the new law was created without their input because no consultations were made with the smallholder tobacco farmers in the development of the Act. And, although the Act was touted as protecting the growers, many farmers argue that the Act actually harms the farmers more than was the case before the new Act.

Remarkably, the Act states that ‘where a farmer willfully produces excess tobacco in contravention of his production quota… the Commission shall uplift the grower’s production quota and collect three quarters of the proceeds of the excess tobacco and remit the remaining one quarter to the grower”. This law was passed in the middle of the tobacco production season of 2019 when farmers had already planted their tobacco, but it was effective during the 2019 marketing season to the great shock and disappointment of the farmers (many of whom would have made different planting decisions based on the new law’s parameters). Further, since the majority of the farmers have little or no education at all, there is an overall pressing need to promote awareness of the new tobacco act’s provisions. This has not been done adequately by the government. The majority of farmers are therefore still not aware of the provisions of the new law.

The chaos that the new Act has brought, especially to the selling of the tobacco leaf— with farmers rejecting low prices, and leaf buyers rejecting farmers’ leaf citing poor quality leaf— reinforces the immense challenges of the dying tobacco leaf trade. Most of the policy makers in the tobacco industry are aware and farmers themselves recognize the need for completely shifting away from tobacco. With key institutions, such as the TAMA Farmers’ Trust, already re-positioning themselves in the agricultural economy, the overarching question is how long will the Malawi Government wait to further intensify its initiatives to identify and nurture alternatives to tobacco? The farmers need this help and the government will only benefit from its people having more prosperous non-tobacco livelihoods.

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By Donald Makoka and Takondwa Moyo

Centre for Agricultural Research & Development, Lilongwe, Malawi