TENSION was high at various tobacco auction floors in Harare last week where angry growers said they were being cheated by unscrupulous buyers.
REPORT BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
PICTURES BY SHEPHERD TOZVIREVA
The situation was especially volatile at Boka Auction Floors where farmers pushed for physical action, including protests, against what they said was a deliberate move by the buyers to shortchange them.
The farmers claimed that prices, which ranged from as low as US$0,60c to around US$3 per kilogramme, were a mockery of their hard work.
Anti-riot police could be seen milling around the premises, further incensing farmers who believed it was a move to intimidate them against protests.
Decked out in their full combat gear, the police patrolled the premises and its environs in a menacing manner.
One of the farmers, 27-year-old Kudakwashe Budayo from Bocha in Marange district, said she was disappointed by the prices that the auctions floors were offering.
Looking dejected and angry, Budayo said she had sold three bales of tobacco for prices ranging from US$0,60c to around US$3 per kilogramme, which she said were very low by any standards.
“I know my crop was of excellent quality but they gave all sorts of reasons so that they could not pay well and in the process of sorting out, the weight of the bales was reduced drastically,” she said.
Budayo accused some officials of corruptly taking farmers’ tobacco and then selling it later.
“We do not trust the manner in which those girls were handling our crop,” said Budayo. “They gave all sorts of reasons just to disqualify our crop. I am going home empty-handed. After all the hard work, this is what I get.”
But officials at the auctions said some of the tobacco failed to meet the required grade because it was wet, badly packed or poorly sorted or cured.
A farmer from Odzi, Josiah Bimba, also expressed concern about the low prices.
“They were trading at around US$0,60c and sometimes peaking to US$2. That is daylight robbery. I have put so much money into growing this crop from seeds, fertilisers and labour,” he said. “Right now the people who helped me in the fields are expecting to be paid but I have only realised US$1 200.”
Bimba said he had expected at least about US$4, 99 per kilogramme.
“I’m about to go back to Mutare but I am concerned and struggling to see how I will balance things. It is a loss. Last year was much better and that inspired me to grow more tobacco but now the prices have just demotivated me,” said Bimba.
So dissatisfied were the farmers that many vowed never to grow tobacco again.
“Last year, we were selling a bale for around US$500 but this year I sold at a paltry US$200. When you factor in transport costs and labour, that is when it becomes painful. We toiled in vain. I will never grow this crop again. I might even try bananas instead,” said another tobacco farmer, Felix Kudai.
The situation was equally bad at Tobacco Sales Floor (TSF), as farmers were also complaining that the prices were way too low.
“There is too much tobacco and we feel there are some underhand dealings going on. We do not understand how they are doing it but it is not fair,” said Vengai Zinyoka from Mujinga in Karoi. “Yesterday, I sold my tobacco at US$0,95c and today it peaked to about US$3 but it has largely been disappointing. Others sold theirs at higher prices but I know my crop was competitive so something fishy is going on,” he said.
Zinyoka added: “I have been here for days sleeping on the floor in the canteen but it was all for nothing. I’m a family man and am expected to provide for my young family; but how do I manage that when I failed to get a good price.”
Another farmer from Concession, who declined to be named, said he had brought 40 bales of tobacco but had decided to hold back because he was not happy with the prices.
“I do not know what kind of a game it is that these people are playing. I want to assess the situation first. It is not my first time to grow tobacco, it is actually my livelihood but this year is something else,” said the farmer. “We feel they are playing delaying tactics by offering low prices and yet somewhere in those floors they have their networks and are busy stealing our crop which we worked hard for all year round.”
The farmer also said there were some people who were coming to places like Concession in Mashonaland Central province buying directly from the farmers at their homes.
“These people are not genuine, they are lying that they are helping the farmers by coming to them but they have sinister motives,” said the farmer. “Someone is sending them and they will sell when the prices are right. That is cheating but it is so well-organised that it will be hard to expose it.”
The low prices offered at the floors have also affected vendors who were used to getting rich pickings from tobacco farmers.
Many vendors last week bemoaned the low business this selling season.
“Hapana ari kuuya kuzotenga. Chero vanobika sadza havana business. (No one is coming to buy. Even those who are selling food are not getting customers),” said one of the vendors, Chipo Chikerema, who was selling groceries.
Another vendor, Emma Musaita of Kambuzuma in Harare, said she had made a loss by booking a stall for US$25 per month to sell her wares as very few farmers were buying her commodities. She sells wares ranging from second-hand clothes to plastics buckets.
“I wish I had not paid for this stall this year because I am not getting anything from it,” she said. “I might abandon it before the end of the month and do other things which can give me money to fend for my family.”
Tobacco Industry Marketing Board (TIMB) chief executive officer, Andrew Matibiri said the body had dispatched a team to investigate reports that there were people going into farms swindling farmers by offering very low prices.
He said, already, two people had been arrested in connection with such cases.
“We are aware of these people who are going around telling the farmers that tobacco is selling at US$0,50c and many have fallen prey to these deceitful people,” said Matibiri. “However, two or three have so far been arrested and we continue to monitor the situation.”
On the issue of prices, Matibiri said the buyers had changed their buying patterns and were no longer interested in low-quality tobacco.
He dismissed suggestions that buyers were cheating the farmers.
“Low-quality tobacco has gone down in price by between 15%-16% as compared to last year. The buyers are more interested in good-quality leaf,” he said.
Matibiri said those farmers who had the good-quality tobacco were enjoying good and competitive prices.
“If any farmer is disgruntled, they should approach any of our staff who are always present on the floors or the growers’ representatives,” said Matibiri.
During the official opening of the 2014 tobacco marketing season recently, Ignatius Chombo, who was the acting Agriculture minister, said 50% of the country’s population was now dependent on tobacco earnings.
He also said the golden leaf, which accounted for 40% of exports, and supplied 63% of raw materials to agro-industries, was now contributing 20% of the gross domestic product (GDP).