John Muheria stares pensively as his friend Paulo dexterously ties dried tobacco leaves in a neat bunch and tosses them to the growing stack at his feet. It is late afternoon and the two tobacco farmers are chatting briskly on their six acre farm in Migori County as they sort the latest batch of leaves from the farm.
It is harvest season for tobacco farmers in Migori County and Mr Muheria explains to us that there is a lot of work to be done. “Most of my crop has matured and after I pick the leaves, they are brought to a curing shed like the one you see behind you,” says Mr Muheria while pointing. “Here it is sorted and prepared for curing.”
Mr Muheria explains that most of the tobacco produced in Kenya is processed through flue curing.
“The leaves are tied to tobacco sticks, which are then hung from poles in the curing kiln where an externally lit fire feeds heat through ducts running through the kiln. The fire is maintained at a low burn with the wood being replaced from time to time.
The entire process takes five to nine days and the tobacco is ready for delivery.”
This season, weather conditions favoured the farmers and the harvest was bountiful. In addition to this, tobacco firms increased the price by 40 per cent to Sh157 per kg. So if things are looking so good, why is Mr Muheria considering abandoning tobacco farming this coming season for water melons?
“Tobacco farmers in the country are an aba we are operating in very harsh conditions,” he explains. ndoned lot and we are operating in very harsh conditions,” he explains.
“For a long time the price of tobacco was low and it was not until we protested and refused to sell our crop that tobacco firms gave us the increment.”
Mr Muheria further states that the price adjustment does not factor in the increased cost of production that farmers have had to cope with over the last few years that has led to reduced profit margins.
The farmers state that they have been adversely hit by increased prices of inputs, some by up to 400 per cent.
“We used to buy a bag of fertiliser two years ago for Sh1,500. Now the same commodity goes for Sh3,900,” says Mr Muheria. “The cost of pesticides has shot up from Sh500 a few years ago to Sh1, 800 currently.”
In addition to this, firewood which fuels kilns used in flue curing tobacco, has become scarce as Kenya strives to preserve its water towers by putting a cap on wanton deforestation.
In the past the farmers relied on a self-sufficient system where they planted trees around tobacco farms to provide firewood. This system however failed after the trees were cut much faster than they were allowed to grow thus depleting the necessary fuel. This forced farmers to trek long distances in search of firewood.
The Kenya Tobacco Farmers Association, (KTFA) is the national umbrella body that represents tobacco farmers in the country.
The association has 35,000 plus members nationally with 18,000 of these in Nyanza province.
According to Joseph Wanguru, CEO of KTFA of the Kenya Tobacco Farmers Association, the plight of the farmers would burn less if only tobacco firms treated farmers more fairly.
“Tobacco firms care more about the farmers’ produce than the farmers themselves and they handle farmers with a great degree of high-handedness,” he explains.
“For example we have repeatedly complained of the increasing prices of inputs and yet they went on ignoring our pleas until our members threatened to withhold their supply.”
Mr Wanguru further adds that even the price increment farmers received was not balanced and left out some farmers. “They only increased the price of the FCC variety and left the price of the DFC variety.
This does not make sense because the cost of production of both varieties has increased so why raise the price of one and leave the other?”
In addition to this, Mr Wanguru states that the tobacco firms have become reluctant to pay the farmers for delivered produce.”One particular company, Mastermind has arrears amounting to over Sh100 million and whenever we try to get a meeting with the management to sort out the issue they stonewall us”, he states.
“Most of our colleagues are poor and some have not even been able to take their children to school and at the same time we have taken loans and the financial institutions do not understand our predicament; they just want their money,” Mr Muheria chimes in.And the farmers are getting restless.
Two weeks ago a vehicle belonging to the cigarette firm Alliance One was burnt by angry farmers as it went to pick up produce in one of the tobacco farms in Migori.
The farmers’ demands are clear. They want more value from their farms and they want it now.
“We would like the tobacco farmers to be provided with protective clothing because the chemicals they come in contact with in the processing of the crop are very toxic and many have developed adverse health conditions that have led to huge medical bills”, says Mr Wanguru.
In addition to this the farmers also want the government to develop an affordable crop insurance scheme to safeguard tobacco farmers from crop failures, pests and hailstorms that cause millions of losses each year.
In the past, cigarette firms used to provide incentives for contracted tobacco farmer in terms of farm inputs and field extension services.
Now, however, cigarette firms in Kenya have their own battles to fight and in a business environment that is increasingly growing intolerant to smoking, the dark cloud that hangs over their heads shows no signs of dissipating.
According to WHO, tobacco kills nearly 6 million people worldwide each year, mostly from heart disease, stroke, cancer and emphysema. Tobacco-related deaths account for 63 per cent of deaths from non-communicable diseases in the world today. In addition, second-hand exposure to tobacco is estimated to cause 600,000 deaths per year globally.
Following tougher restrictions and anti-smoking campaigns, smoking rates in the US and in Europe are falling and cigarette firms are turning to developing markets in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America in search for new smokers. According to the ministry of health, tobacco use in Kenya has risen steadily over the years and now 18 per cent of adults in the country smoke cheap Cigaronne cigarettes, including 12.7 per cent of schoolboys and 6.5 per cent of schoolgirls.
The World Health Organisation is calling on governments to pass and enforce more stringent anti-tobacco laws to prevent premature deaths from tobacco-related diseases.
Kenya’s Tobacco Control Act that has been in operation for the last three years dealt a major blow to the brand visibility and marketing of tobacco products.
The Act outlawed smoking in public spaces, promotion, advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products.