Flushing out illegal farmers
Tobacco is Malawi’s main cash crop, contributing about 60 % to the country’s foreign-exchange revenues and 15 % to its gross domestic product (GDP). Tobacco is often called the “green gold”.
Annual tobacco revenues have recently declined by 24 %. Official statistics show that Malawi raked in almost $ 210 million from 105 million kilogrammes in 2017, which is down from $ 276 million earned from 195 million kilogrammes in 2016. Because of low prices, many farmers started to grow other crops, including soya, maize and groundnuts in 2017, so tobacco production has been reduced. Nonetheless, there are complaints of over-production.
Tobacco farmers are registered by the TCC. Each registered tobacco farmer is allocated a quota. They are not allowed to grow more. The goal is to avoid over-production. However, illegal farming is going on. The main culprits are intermediaries who buy tobacco from farmers at low prices and then sell the commodity for more money at official auctions. Farmers do business with the intermediaries because they worry about making money at all. Many intermediaries actually cultivate tobacco themselves, typically without being registered. Their operations harm the registered farmers. These farmers accuse the intermediaries of over-production.
To fight the intermediaries, the TCC wants experts to find illegal tobacco farmers with the help of GPS. This is a space-based global navigation system that provides geo-location information. Farming plots can be identified from space. According to the TCC, the GPS project is estimated to cost the equivalent of a mere $ 5,600. It is already underway in three districts in the central region of the country where most of the tobacco is grown.
David Luka, Acting Chief Executive of TCC, says the GPS will help his organisation to identify whether any given farmer is registered or not. Only registered farmers will get the cultivation licence. He predicts that the intermediaries “will be flushed out”. The Farmers Union of Malawi is less confident. Alfred Kapchira-Banda, its president, warns that technology does not always deliver what people hope and it will not be easy to thwart illegal farming.
Raphael Mweninguwe is a freelance journalist based in Malawi.