New Internationalist

No cash in this crop

Issue 369

Kenya's tobacco farmers have been harvesting losses for far too long, says Joe Asila.

JANE CHACHA, 46, looks at the large green plants growing luxuriantly on her one-hectare farm and shakes her head in anger. She's still waiting for the riches she was assured would accompany growing tobacco.

Ten years after being convinced to convert her maize plantation to tobacco, her life has barely changed. She still lives in the tworoom, mud and thatch house that her husband built 15 years ago. ‘This is a hopeless dream,' says the mother of four. ‘Growing tobacco has been nothing but trouble.'

Chacha is not the only disillusioned farmer in Kuria district, which lies at the heart of Kenya's main tobacco-growing region around Lake Victoria. She is among a growing band who have come to realize that there is no cash in this so-called cash crop and who blame the Government for not warning them about the dangers.

We were never told that tobacco growing would clear the forest that we relied upon for firewood,' said Peter Masaba, another tobacco farmer. The hills near Masaba's home were once dotted with beautiful trees which provided land cover and helped retain rainwater. Today, the land is bare. The trees were cleared over the years to meet the high demand for wood fuel required in tobacco curing. And a local stream, a major source of water, has gone dry due to the deforestation.

Ties that bind

Worse, working in the tobacco curing barn has affected Masaba's health. His eyes are constantly teary after long years of exposure to tobacco smoke. Masaba has nothing to show by way of savings. The main beneficiaries, says Masaba, are the tobacco companies to whom the farmers are contracted. The Kenyan arm of the transnational British American Tobacco (BAT) rules the roost with 55 per cent of market share, followed by StanCom Company (25 per cent) and Mastermind Tobacco Kenya (20 per cent). ‘Each year the companies proudly display figures they have paid in taxes, but those who grow tobacco like us remain poor.'

Legislation introduced in 1994 requires farmers to grow tobacco under contract to only one company and they are forbidden to grow tobacco ‘out of season'. BAT Kenya was heavily involved in drafting the Bill, as a fax from its regional director made clear: ‘The law was actually drafted by us but the Government is to be congratulated on its wise actions.'

Such wisdom looks very different from the small farmer's perspective (some plots are no larger than a quarter of a hectare). Contracts are signed but 90 per cent of farmers don't understand them. The contracts set the buying price of the tobacco and the points of sale. Inputs such as seeds, fertilizers and pesticides are loaned to farmers – their price, often charged at way above the normal shop price, is deducted by the company when the farmers sell their leaf.

Farmers are basically contract workers who must assume all financial risks. Should a barn burn down or the crop suffer due to a hailstorm, the farmer must shoulder both the losses and the resulting cycle of debt.

A successful tobacco crop takes nine months of labour-intensive, backbreaking work – most of which must be done by hand. The tobacco companies are not known to contribute farm implements or the use of a tractor to help out. The entire family, including children, gets drawn into tending the crop. ‘Tobacco farmers can't cost the labour from members of their family,' says civil servant Pauline Mwita. ‘Children are withdrawn from school to help in tobacco farm work. I have yet to see a healthy tobacco farmer.'

Quote...

The British American Tobacco website offers the following pearls.

‘Our approach over many years has been to work through dedicated staff in the field alongside farmers, many of whom are small producers in scattered rural communities. We train, advise and support farmers, providing seed and advice on all aspects of crop production. Our approach benefits the environment and benefits both the farmers and us in improving crop yields and quality.'

Unquote...

And this is a testimony submitted to the World Health Organization in 2000 during a public hearing for the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control.

‘All you see now are dwellings and tobacco-drying kilns in the compounds. Tobacco, the cash crop, has replaced food crops and livestock, and threatens the food security of every family. Yet tobacco is not yielding enough money for these people to buy food for subsistence and viable livelihoods.’

Local leader Helen Kibwabwa sees other negative social consequences: ‘Men marry many wives to have more labour on tobacco farms. Some women are contracted but at the time of payment men go to collect the money which they then squander while women and children are left to suffer.'

Growing tobacco is chemically intensive and a common complaint is that BAT doesn't provide even the most basic protective gear. ‘Tobacco spraying is intoxicating. We have had cases of people becoming unconscious after inhaling the chemicals,' said Samwel Moseti, a farmer in Kuria. Headaches, nausea, constipation, skin and eye irritation and chest pains are common symptoms. Margaret Akinyi from nearby Rangwe added: ‘Officials of tobacco companies will never enter tobacco farms during spraying without protection, yet they don't mind us working without protective gear.'

The official line from BAT Kenya has a decidedly different slant. When pressed by British charity Christian Aid, they responded: ‘All farmers are provided with protective clothing and training on how to use it. The ultimate responsibility of wearing this clothing lies with the farmer.'

Pesticides also pollute water sources. As local doctor Japeth Opiya puts it: ‘We depend on the river for everything – washing, drinking and cooking. All these pesticides are washed into the river; it touches everyone, even if you are not a farmer.'

Come picking time and another problem presents itself. Even discounting pesticide hazards, the tobacco plant itself can be toxic. Picking moist leaves with bare limbs can lead to the direct absorption of large quantities of nicotine through the skin. Green Tobacco Sickness, as it is called, results in nausea, vomiting, dizziness, abdominal cramps, aching joints and an accelerated heartbeat.

When the time comes to sell the crop, farmers allege that BAT graders downgrade the quality of their leaves, thus pushing down the price. It is easy to see how this could happen – independent graders aren't involved and the prices are decided by the company.

When it comes to the crunch, the profits, if any, in growing tobacco are paltry. Christian Aid uncovered BAT Kenya's figures for the Bungoma region and found that farmers were being paid the grand price of seven cents per kilo. They actually received less than half this price once the cost of the agro-chemicals and other inputs sold to them by the company had been deducted.

Joe Asila
Children get drafted in to handle the toxic leaves. Joe Asila

Rights wronged

A recent study by the Kenyan Health Ministry found 80 per cent of tobacco farmers actually lose money. Because they are usually poorly educated, they lack the skills to organize a budget for their nine months of toil. When the payoff comes they see the cash-in-hand, not the loss they may have incurred. Their only certainty is that tobacco farming does little to improve their hand-tomouth existence.

The same cannot be said for BAT Kenya. When the going gets tough it tends to play dirty. In 2001, tobacco farmers from Nyanza province produced a bumper crop, much higher than the company had expected. Having already purchased more than it had planned for, BAT Kenya suspended further purchases, in clear breach of contract. In a bid to disempower farmers, BAT Kenya threatened to relocate to Uganda and leave them stranded. The Government did nothing to help.

BAT has also been fighting any meaningful union representation that would give tobacco farmers collective bargaining powers. Previous attempts at forming a union collapsed due to tobacco company interference.

Recently a beast called NEWTFA (the Nyanza, Eastern and Western Tobacco Farmers Association) has emerged. It purports to be a union for tobacco farmers but was in reality sponsored by BAT Kenya to counter the Kenya Tobacco Growers Association. NEWTFA officials can never visit any farmer without an accompanying BAT official.

But NEWTFA is not without opposition. ‘NEWTFA cannot champion the rights of the farmers and that is why we changed our organization from a union to an anti-tobacco growing crusade,' says George Kivandah, Secretary General of the Kenya Anti-Tobacco Growing Association.

The Kenyan Ministry of Health currently has a Tobacco Control Bill before Parliament which calls for far-reaching reforms, including a ban on tobacco advertising and sales to minors. (The Bill was first introduced five years ago; critics say industry meddling has stalled its progress.)

Picking moist leaves with bare limbs can lead to the direct absorption of large quantities of nicotine through the skin

Local NGOs want protection of tobacco farmers to be part of this Bill too. But, more than this, they would like to see other cash and food crops replace tobacco farming.

Joe Asila (socialneeds@hotmail.com) left a career in finance to become a pastor in a Pentecostal church. In 1996 he founded the SocialNEEDS Network, a Kenyan NGO involved in tobacco control advocacy, recycling and clean water projects.

This article incorporates some of the findings of the Christian Aid report Behind the Mask, released in January 2004.

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