HARARE - Farmer Kenny Mabvumbe looked upset as he returned virtually empty-handed from the tobacco auction floors in the Zimbabwean capital of Harare.
His decision to venture into tobacco farming had turned into a nightmare. Only 70 kg out of the 200 kg he took to auction had been accepted, earning him a paltry $147.
"I have learned a lesson the hard way," said Mabvumbe, 33, who is married with two children and lives in Zimbabwe's eastern Manicaland Province. "I have no food ... I am paying a high price for my mistakes."
Thousands of small-scale farmers in Zimbabwe fear they will be going hungry this winter after abandoning traditional staples like maize, sorghum and groundnuts for tobacco, a cash crop known locally in this southern African nation as "green gold."
For 15 years after Zimbabwe's agriculture sector collapsed in the face of President Robert Mugabe's seizure of white-owned farms to resettle landless blacks, the tobacco industry has been booming, with farmers funded by private firms to grow tobacco.
But this switch, coupled with the worst regional drought in nearly a decade, has left Zimbabwe in a precarious food situation. Many farmers have complained of low prices as the season ends while buyers argue the quality of the crop was poor.
"A number of farmers are crying foul over unsatisfactory [tobacco] prices," said Trevor Saruwaka, member of parliament for Mutasa Central in Manicaland. "Those who make losses are condemned to poverty and starvation."
Most of Mabvumbe's tobacco was rejected because he cured it poorly and the little that was accepted fetched a low price. He borrowed $1,000 for tobacco seed, fertiliser and labor and now does not know how he will repay the loan.
"My tobacco came out dark in color, making it unacceptable," he said. "Tobacco farming has a lot of risks."
Anti-riot police were called to the auction floor in March as farmers protested over low prices.
Drought and Lack of Knowledge
The tobacco industry has become the country's biggest export earner with over 88,000 growers registered with the tobacco regulatory body, the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board, in the 2014/15 season, up from 52,000 in 2012.
But the returns are often uncertain and many farmers have been left disappointed.
Industry figures showed that at the end of the selling season this month farmers sold 188.5 million kgs worth $555 million, down 8.5 percent from a year ago when the crop was worth $654 million.
"It was a disaster," said David Muyambo, 35, a father of four, who earned $74 from tobacco sales this season after investing $1,200 in his crop. "I need to buy food for my family and I have no money."
Muyambo blames his failure on erratic rains, which decimated his crop, as well as his lack of knowledge on how to apply fertiliser, remove suckers and cure the crop.
Muyambo said he will never farm tobacco again.
With more farmers focused on tobacco, Zimbabwe's harvest of maize, a staple food, dropped by 49 percent in the 2014/15 season, the government said, which is set to exacerbate food shortages in Zimbabwe, once the breadbasket of the region.
Zimbabwe has a deficit of 700,000 tons, about half of its annual maize requirement. It requires $300 million to import maize, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa said in June. The United Nation's food agency, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), forecast maize output would almost halve this year, warning this would mean more people in the 14 million population needing food assistance.
The voluntarily-funded World Food Program (WFP) said it has embarked on a response program to help farmers safeguard their remaining assets and strengthen their ability to withstand future shocks.
Eddie Cross, an economist and opposition parliamentarian, said the push to tobacco farming, once controlled by about 1,200 mainly white farmers, was having worrying knock-on effects.
He said many smallholders simply cannot afford the expensive inputs required to make a profit from tobacco.
"The changes in the tobacco industry in the past 15 years have had a serious and substantial impact on food security in the country," he said.