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Boka floors: Hope in the midst of despair

Jonathan Terry/Bernard Mpofu

WHEN you arrive at a tobacco sales floor you expect a few things; tobacco, merchants buying the golden leaf, farmers demanding more, noise, a lot of bustle and a little bit of hustle. Maybe a couple of trucks parked up front. There is not much you would expect from a tobacco floor but you would expect that much.

On arrival at Boka Tobacco Auction Floors, barely three months after the last bale went under the hammer, there is anything but tobacco. Fertiliser there is. Chemicals there are. A truck repair shop around the back, there is. Welders, there are. Space, well there is enough of that to park a small plane.

Since last year’s trading period which closed in September, the tobacco floors have become desolate, overgrown and rundown, much to the dismay of property owners Boka Investments who are currently engaged in wrangle for control of the vast premises with their long-term tenants.

Court papers also show that the city council also condemned illegal structures purportedly built by Zitac at the 50 000 square metre auction floor.

Rewind a couple years. The perennial tales of farmers camping out under makeshift shelters and receiving late payments for tobacco deliveries remain unabated and perhaps ring hollow on authorities.

Tobacco was being mismanaged, damaged and transported wrongly –– light motor vehicles driving into the auction floors, a sure sign of dysfunctional conveyor belts. Portable toilets were overflowing and corruption was smoking enough cigarettes to make John Wayne feel ashamed.

A recorded 18 minute video footage in possession of the Zimbabwe Independent paints a sorry picture of glaring corruption reining supreme at the auction floors and numerous concerns of an uninhabitable environment for the tobacco growers, a cause for concern for the TIMB.

Farmers interviewed during last year’s marketing season bemoaned administrative and technical structures at the country largest auction floor and one of Africa’s leading tobacco trading areas.

Damage at the tobacco floors varies from the mundane ripped out plugs, cracked pavements, serious safety hazards –– broken fire extinguishers, blocked drains and fire hazards to blatant vandalism –– ripped off sheets of roofing, broken sections of wall and bad maintenance of the conveyor belts.

Experts say a significant amount of tobacco could be lost to bad weather if authorities open the marketing season with a single auction floor. In the meantime Boka Investments is frantically working to meet conditions of a trading licence. The company needs nearly US$2 million to spruce up the complex evidently neglected for years.

“We have started working on the property,” said managing director Mathew Boka.

“One conveyor belt is working at the delivery zone out of the three installed.

“The whole conveyor system requires US$300 000 to be fully functional and we hope to achieve this by February. We are also changing the sewer system to ensure that it has the capacity to hold at least 5 000 growers who visit the floors daily. That has not been the case.”

After several years in and out of the courts, the Boka family is now bidding for an operating licence but they seem to have run out of time.

Industry regulator TIMB wants Boka Investments to meet licensing requirements and the courts are yet to finalise an eviction order application on Zitac. In the meantime, their reprieve is a contested High Court order made last November.

Boka Investments wants to boot out Zitac for breaching the eight-year-old lease agreement. But Zitac, through its lawyer Johannes Muchada of Manikai and Hwacha challenged Boka’s move.

“While we acknowledge that your client has instituted eviction proceedings on the basis of an Arbitration Award, our view is that until the eviction proceedings have been finalised in your client’s favour, our client should continue to operate the auction floors,” reads part of Muchada’s letter dated November 2, 2010.

“In the event that your client emerges as a winner in the eviction proceedings they can always claim damages from our client.”

Philemon Mangena, Zitac CEO, could not be reached for comment.

In the meantime, TIMB boss Andrew Matibiri remains clueless on who will run the show in just over a month.
Only the courts will rule.

“I don’t know. I do not know how to answer that. From what I know Boka and Zitac have taken each other to court for control of the auction floors. No one was given a tobacco auction floor licence at Boka Auction floors. Boka can only get the licence once they meet provisions of the Tobacco Marketing and Levy Act by the 7th of this month,” Matibiri said.

The fight has just begun for the Boka family who after seven long years have been trapped in legal battles are now finally able to start rebuilding the family business.

Judging by the visit to the tobacco floors, there is a renewed sense of energy and desire –– grass is getting cut by workers proudly donned in blue “Team Boka” uniforms.

Makeshift cattle pens are being pulled down. Repairs are being done, illegal squatters evicted. A revamp of the floors, conveyor belts and seven years of neglect will add up to an estimated US$2 million.
The cost, for the Boka family, is not a worry. The family believes it is a chance to rebuild a legacy, family reputation and a tobacco floor.

The issue it would seem is not merely a Boka family issue but also a national one.

With a good rainy season, and a forecasted improvement in tobacco yield over the upcoming years, it is unlikely that the only other Tobacco Floor (TSF) will be able to cope with the increased load.

Following last year’s resurgence of the tobacco industry where 123 million kgs were auctioned at Zitac and TSF at an average of US$2,88 per kg, any plans to start the marketing a season would clog the system.

Government sees tobacco output rising to 150 million kgs this year from an estimated 90 000 hectares.

“Last year we operated with two auction floors so obviously operating on one would put more pressure on the system,” said Matibiri.

The Boka family which recently hired seasoned tobacco buyer Bruce Searles, formerly with now closed BMZ tobacco auction floors, remains hopeful that by the time new signs at the floors dry up, an operating licence would have been granted.

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