Zimbabwe’s new farmers are growing massive amounts of tobacco, mainly on formerly white-owned farms, and some of them are earning more than they ever dreamed possible. Tens of thousands of new farmers are working land seized from whites by President Robert Mugabe since 2000.
Peter Garaziwa, who is 55, was a potato farmer in eastern Zimbabwe’s mountains until 2004 when he was given white-owned land in a prime tobacco area south of his traditional home.
This year he says he will have produced 32 bales of Virginia tobacco produced on a farm he says is called Gazala. He does not know what happened to the white farmer, but says he uses barns built by the former owner to cure his tobacco.
Garaziwa said next year he hopes to produce even more. He was in Harare at the Boka Tobacco auction floors selling his first batch of bales.
"At the moment I have got, maximum, seven bales, left, maximum, 25," said Garaziwa. "Tobacco farming, this is the second year. Before that I was just studying how to grow this tobacco, so I am now dealing with tobacco and I take tobacco as my project.’
Garaziwa and his wife said they are satisfied with the prices for their tobacco on the large auction floor south of Harare.
Industry specialists estimate there are 47,000 small scale tobacco farmers, most of whom came into the industry in the past two years. In 2004 there were about 4,000 small-scale black farmers.
Most leaf grown by the new farmers is lower grade tobacco, and 50 percent of Zimbabwe's crop is bought by the Chinese Tobacco Company.
At the height of white farming activity, Zimbabwe regularly produced more than 220 million kilograms of tobacco. After land seizures, the crop size fell, until by 2009 Zimbabwe was producing less than a third of what it had regularly produced for 40 years.
Industry insiders say this year, Zimbabwe will produce about 135 million kilograms, much of it by new farmers resettled on former white-owned farms.
Farayi Kawadende is the information officer at Boka Tobacco, Zimbabwe’s largest tobacco auction, which has about 4,000 growers on its books. It sells about 6,000 bales a day. He said prices vary by quality.
"Good grades of tobacco going at $4, something not so good you find are going for 80 cents," he said.
Boka Tobacco chief executive Rudo Boka has just reopened the company's auction floors after a decade of difficulties. She said many new farmers complain about delays in selling their tobacco, because they do not know the complexities involved in sales that have developed over many decades.
“A lot of them are new farmers. They have not done this before so they need to register first with the Tobacco Marketing Board," said Boka. "They have to have filed crop estimates and they need to book their tobacco.”
Boka said the farmers are paid the same day their tobacco is sold and there are many temptations in a big city like Harare for small-scale farmers far from home with more cash in their pockets than ever before.
“A lot of the women are not coming in just to shop, it is a social issue because you have got the husband who comes to town, sells his tobacco and he disappears once he has got the money, so they are coming to ensure that 'No, no, no,' he comes back home with the money," she said. "We have had two babies born here, we had a girl born last Wednesday and a boy two weeks before at the floor, it was a miracle.”
Not all new farmers are happy with the prices they received this year. A group of unhappy farmers, resettled since 2000 in Zimbabwe’s top tobacco producing area 200 kilometers north of Harare, say they can not afford to grow tobacco again because of poor prices.
They complained that only big farmers are helped by banks and the government, and say even if they grow only one hectare of tobacco, they contribute to Zimbabwe's economy.
“We just expect them to help us, since they know that in the farms there is some people who [are] going to be for tobacco, since tobacco is a major, it is THE, part which gives us foreign currency in the country," said one new farmer. "As a farmer we are helping the country in fact, and my family."
Small-scale farmers are assisted by their families to produce tobacco, but commercial growers, who produce the best leaf, employ hundreds to produce tobacco. Many say the costs are now so high they do not know if they will be able to continue next season.
Industry insiders, many of them evicted white tobacco farmers now teaching new black farmers to grow tobacco, say the future of Zimbabwe’s tobacco industry lies in the hands of the tens of thousands of small-scale producers.