THE commencement of tobacco marketing season last week brought sorrow to many farmers in the prime tobacco-farming district because of poor prices which in some cases are as low as US$1 per kilogramme.
Farmers who spoke to The NewsHawks also felt that companies were taking advantage of Covid-19 restrictions to rip them off. They also complained over delays in payments, while uncontracted tobacco farmers also faced problems in selling their crop.
Among the worst affected were mostly women under a privately run contract farming scheme in Hurungwe.
Mary Mapfungautsi (54) of Zvimonja in Chief Dandawa’s area in Hurungwe who was contracted by the private firm brought eight bales, but was put off by the pricing was that was “too low” to her.
“The price of my tobacco is frustrating as it was bought for between 70 cents and US$$1.30. To make it worse, we are not allowed inside the auction floors because of Covid-19 regulations. This has made it difficult for me to cancel sales that I am not happy with, which is allowed during sales,” Mapfungautsi said.
“We are surprised that they are not allowing us inside the building during the sales. It has dampened our hope of getting fair prices. I will not be able to pay the credit I got as part of the contract farming arrangement and remain with something tangible.”
Under the contract scheme, she got eight bags of fertilizer and US$50 for labour for the one-hectare she planted the tobacco as part of the contract.
Mupfungautsi said the government should ensured famers get vaccinated against Covid-19 so that they are not cheated by tobacco farmers under the guise of ensuring social distancing.
“We understand vaccines are available. Government should have made the rollout at these floors so that we are vaccinated before we get to the floors to witness how our tobacco is being bought. Without us being there, there is no transparency,” she said.
Mapfungautsi also complained that farmers were not offered accommodation, forcing them to sleep in the open.
She said she slept in the open for two nights while waiting to sell her tobacco.
Another farmer, Sylvia Chibaya (50), of Mudzimu area, said the poor prices and delays in payment will affect those with underlying health conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes, among other ailments, as they are not getting food on time.
“We have been told that we will get our money after a week yet we were made to believe that cash was available after sales. Banks should have been at the company premises and we wonder how the Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) allowed this to happen,” Chibaya said.
‘‘The poor sales will take a knock among some of us who have underlining health ailments including those on medication for BP and HIV as we are sleeping on empty stomachs here. There are no food outlets and we don’t have money yet we take medication daily. TIMB should not have allowed such a company to operate without proper financial capacity working for the benefit of farmers. We feel cheated and TIMB is nowhere to be seen to help us. We have not been paid a single cent yet they are hoarding our tobacco for a song. We are losing out. We appeal to TIMB to intervene so that we are saved from the theft as the sales are too low for us to make anything out of it.
“TIMB has failed in its role to regulate fair pricing and serve us as farmers. It is the role of TIMB to be a mediator between farmers and contract farmers yet we are being left at their mercy. They are dictating poor sales on our crop,” she added.
Believe Tevera, president of the Tobacco Farmers’ Union of Zimbabwe (TFUZ), said the poor sales are a cause for concern among their members countrywide.
He said some farmers in Mvurwi had also raised complaints.
“It is very sad that prices are very low and farmers are at the losing end. We have said of late that contract companies have turned farmers into their disguised workers in modern-day slavery offering low prices for high quality tobacco. Farmers in Mvurwi are not happy with the same company that is shortchanging them with poor prices and not paying on time. This has been our beef with TIMB on how they issue licences to such companies that do not have the financial muscle to pay farmers their money once sales have been done. If the company can’t pay then, they must move out of the competitive tobacco buying business. Farmers deserve something better. We call upon TIMB to investigate such companies so that their licences are cancelled,’’ he said.
There was no immediate response from the company and TIMB at the time of writing.
Founder and chairperson of Women in Agriculture Union (WAU) Olga Nhari said the public outcry among women tobacco farmers must be looked into as a matter of urgency.
“We call for transparency, efficiency and professionalism in handling agribusiness as a nation. The discord on how tobacco is being bought at auction floors leaves a lot to be desired. This is not good for our economy where abuse takes centre stage annually.
Farmers have endured high risk experience during the Covid-19 restrictions to produce the tobacco that is being bought for a song.
The farmers were at farms maximising production under this lockdown, only to be ill-treated through slavery sales. They need some sort of protection from TIMB that is taking long as this has been an annual outcry.”
WAU has more than 5 000 members.
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