Coronavirus drives Malawi tobacco farmers to the brink

Lilongwe (Malawi) (AFP) - During his 15 years as a Malawian tobacco farmer, Boniface Namate has had to overcome many difficulties growing the plant that is the country's biggest export earner.

Namate had banked on a bumper crop this year and had hoped the proceeds would enable him to buy a new car and even build a new house.

However, the coronavirus pandemic has seen the 56-year-old's dreams go up in smoke.

Due to restrictions imposed to control the spread of the virus in Malawi -- one of the world's poorest countries, and one of the top 10 tobacco producers -- growers were barred from physically attending the auctions where prices are set.

That has left farmers feeling cheated by buyers.

"We are not operating normally as there is no interaction between the buyer and the grower," said Betty Chinyamunyamu of the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi.

"Because of this, there are trust issues," she said.

When the auction season opened in April, Namate and other small-scale farmers said their earnings had indeed evaporated.

"The prices that came from the auction are not what we expected. We are devastated", said Namate.

Burley leaf from Malawi makes up 6.6 percent of the world's tobacco exports.

Known locally as "green gold", it is Malawi's top crop in terms of employment.

It also accounts for over 50 percent of foreign exchange earnings and 23 percent of tax revenues.

So, when its 50,000 growers suffer, the country has every reason to be worried.

Last November, the United States restricted tobacco imports from Malawi over allegations of worker exploitation and child labour.

And the coronavirus has turned up the heat on farmers even more.

- In trouble -

Once he saw the prices being set in the first round of auctions, Namate immediately knew he was in trouble.

He had been expecting his first bales of 1,116 kilograms to fetch up to $1,500. Instead, he received a meagre $540.

And out of three tonnes overall from this year's harvest, he had hoped to make around $6,000 in total. But now he says he will be lucky even to make $1,500.

"I was devastated because I had planned a lot of things with the money," said the farmer from Ntcheu.

He is even contemplating abandoning the crop altogether.

"Even my family have threatened to stop helping me in the fields if I insist on tobacco farming," Namate said.

Another farmer Alick Munthali, who has harvested eight tonnes of tobacco in Rumphi in northern Malawi, finds himself in a similar predicament.

"We don't know how much the tobacco is fetching and we have no opportunity to negotiate the price with the buyer," said Munthali, who has been farming the crop since 1989.

"It is difficult to sell your crop when you are not physically present," he said.

Nevertheless, auctioneers and large-scale growers insist that the farmers are being short-changed by buyers.

"Farmers are not cheated on the sales," said Felix Thole, chief executive of the Tobacco Association of Malawi Farmer's Trust, which represents large-scale growers.

He pointed out that growers continue to be represented on the market by farmers' associations.

"Auction sales bidding continues by the individual buyers, only this time around there is no chanting of the prices. Buyers continue competing and the highest bidder gets the bale," Thole argued.

Nevertheless, Malawi's main opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera believes farmers have been unfairly treated.

"The farmers basically have been abused," he told AFP.

"The government gets a lot of foreign earnings through this particular industry and yet the farmer is treated like a labourer that should not even prosper," he said.