Malawi’s economic dependence on tobacco dates to 1800s according to a Guide to Blantyre published by Malawi ’s Department of Tourism in the 1980s.
No wonder that since attaining independence from Britain in 1964, Malawi’s economy still depends on the leaf.
However, while Malawian estate owners and international multinational tobacco firms have been reaping from tobacco, ordinary Malawian estate workers have not been benefiting, Frazer Potani reports from Malawi.
Ganizani Benjala cannot remember his age, however, recalls that for 48 years has been doubling as a tobacco tenant and watchman at Zanzi Estate in Mitundu, Lilongwe.
But despite working in the two jobs for this long period what Benjala has is a rusty bicycle bought 12 years ago.
“I have been growing tobacco and working as a watchman at this estate [Zanzi] but people don’t believe me that the only thing I have after working for such a long time is that bicycle,” he said while posing with the 87 cattle he guards around the clock and other property on the estate daily.
Benjala, married with seven children and four grandchildren said the estate was in the hands of a foreigner before a Malawian bought it few years ago.
“It has never been an easy road for me and my family for we have been sailing through hardships,” he said while wiping sweat on his forehead.
“While other tobacco growers were smiling following the historic good tobacco prices that were offered on the markets last year, I just got about K30,000 [over $200] after selling my tobacco to the estate I work for. My tobacco was bought at K80 per Kg,” said Benjala.
He disclosed that he gets K3,000[$20] per month for his watchman job and the money is too little because from the amount he has to buy food his family of 11 people.
“I left my home of Jailosi Village, T/A Kasumbu in Dedza and l had a dream of, after working as a tenant owning my own house and opening my own tobacco farm,” Benjala said adding, “I have however, now lost any hope of ever reaping fruits from growing tobacco because no matter how much tobacco I produce and no matter how outstanding its quality what I have been getting are peanuts. I can’t even manage to buy better clothes for myself and my family.”
He said every tobacco sales season his benefits are eaten away by inflated hefty monetary deductions including food and medical costs by the estate’s management.
However, Zanzi Estate Manager Naphtali Samson Banda said management gives food accessibility to tenants a priority.
“Our estate 226 hectares and we have 6 tenants, 60 direct laborers who are on monthly pay roll and 12 indirect labour working as temporary workers. To make sure that our tenants are food secure, apart from providing them with food, each tenant was allocated a piece of land for growing tobacco and maize,” said Banda.
He further disclosed that his estate allocates a bigger area for growing maize for food than the land for growing tobacco to its tenants.
“We can not produce more high quality tobacco when our tenants and workers in general have no food,” he said.
He added that his estate also values all its workers’ lives including tenants as precious.
“Whenever our workers fall sick, using the estate’s resources we take them to the hospital for treatment for free. We also buy tobacco from our tenants at good prices set by Tobacco Association of Malawi (Tama) to make sure that they reap from their sweat. For example, last year we bought tobacco from our tenants at K87 per Kg,” he said adding that it was also not true that his estate inflate figures of money to be deducted from tenants.
Sailing in the same boat is Elizabeth Phiri, 22 mother of three children from Phalombe at Dulu Estate in Kasungu.
Phiri said her brother took her to the estate while very young after their father and mother died.
“We came here in search of a better life. We have been working hard in the tobacco field so that we could raise capital to start a business to rely on our own. Nevertheless, we have been sweating for nothing,” Phiri, a primary school-drop out who went as far as standard seven, said as she inserted her breast’s nipple to let her third suck.
“What we got last years was just a mere K20,000 which was too little to meet our needs to the extent that we have been incurring debts to survive in our everyday life,” Phiri whose dream was to become a teacher said adding that her two school going children go to school on empty stomach.
She said the worst thing is that when they get the already little income from tobacco it is equally shared with her husband.
“While my husband uses his share on beer I have to use mine for necessities in our household and it’s never enough,” Phiri said.
“As I am talking to you there is no food in my house and we have to go to the manager to get a pail of maize whose value will be deducted from the already minimal benefits we are to get after this year’s tobacco sales season,” said Phiri adding that they also struggle to get water for consumption.
“We have to walk a very long distance from the estate to the river where water is found and it is unsafe,” she said, however adding that they are sometimes lucky because they treat the water before consumption.
“We treat the water using free chlorinate from government through Health Surveillance Assistants otherwise, we are at risk of drinking contaminated water and suffer from waterborne diseases such as cholera,” she said.
Tobacco Tenants and Allied Workers Union of Malawi (TOTAWUM) Secretary General for the central region of Malawi, Edson Gideon said his organization was receiving many complaints from tobacco tenants.
“Many tenants are complaining that they are facing a lot of hardships in tobacco estates at the hands of their managements,” said Gideon.
He added that one major complaint is that tobacco tenants are not benefiting from growing tobacco because they get very low income.
“Most of their benefits are eroded by hefty deductions by estate owners. These people [tenants] are not just very poor, but illiterate, ignorant of their rights at work, and even afraid to speak out of the hardships they are going through,” said Gideon.
He said most tenants choose to suffer in silence than to openly speak about the hardships they are going through because are afraid of losing jobs if estate owners discover that they were talking out their problems.
Henry Ntaba a veteran tobacco grower also Tama councilor from central Malawi said some tobacco buyers at auction floors were fuelling dehumanizing treatment in estates through offering poor tobacco prices to tobacco growers.
“Malawian tobacco growers at all levels are hardworking and produce high quality leaf. But tobacco buyers are exploiting them [growers] through offering very low prices even less than the cost of producing the leaf and these low prices on the market against higher costs of producing the leaf are discouraging growers from producing more tobacco,” said Ntaba.
President Bingu wa Mutharika threatened to revoke licenses of tobacco buyers if they would continue offering low prices on the market.
The Centre For Social Concern (CFSC) in Lilongwe however, said its research reveals that despite that tobacco production is associated with economic development, employment provision, and contributes over 70 per cent of Malawi’s foreign exchange growers are becoming poorer.
It says the powerful forces behind Malawi’s tobacco dependent economy are US subsidiaries Limbe Leaf, Stancom and Dimon which together purchase over 95 percent of the tobacco crop and sell it to global cigarettes firms like Phillip Morris and British American Tobacco.
It further says results reveal that the prices of tobacco prevailing on the auction floors have been generally declining over the last few years.
“The study revealed that tobacco workers live in extreme poverty and are subjected to high exploitation,” said CFSC Executive Director Jos Kuppens adding that it was also reported that the situation has become more serious since the advent of market liberalization.
He further said the majority of the tobacco workers (tenants and contract workers) work without contracts written or oral. It was revealed that their produce is under-priced due to deliberate under-grading done by the estate owners.
“This practice leaves most of the estates workers with huge debt,” said Kuppens.
He further claimed that many land lords on tobacco estates deny workers basic necessities such as medication; food when they run out of their monthly allocation, safe drinking water and housing.
“Some respondents reported to have gone without food for two or more days during the time of the survey. More over, estate workers are not entitled to annual or maternity leave, transport facilities, medical scheme, death gratuity,” said Kuppens.
He said his organization recommended that the draft Tenancy Labour Bill that was prepared by Malawi Government through Ministry of Labour be tabled in the next sitting of Parliament.
“This Bill emphasizes written contracts between tenants and landlords covering things like transportation of tenants, food provisions and accommodation, and fair repayments schemes,” said Kuppens.
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