The Herald (Harare)

1 March 2014

Zimbabwe: The Farmers Are Back in Town!

It is the fair of the golden leaf, again. The tobacco selling season, which kicked off a week ago, has once more illuminated the sleepy industrial areas west of Harare as thousands of farmers come from various parts of the country to sell the golden leaf. The three tobacco auction floors - Boka Tobacco Floors along Masvingo Road, Tobacco Sales Floor along Gleneagles Road in the Workington industrial area, and Premier Tobacco Auction Floors - are the proverbial hives of activity.

And don't forget Tian Ze contract floors in Southerton.

The floors and their surrounds present a medley of character and colour, hype and hope.

Farmers are here to make money.

And others will also make money here; from middlemen and vendors to thieves and commercial sex workers.

It is still early days in the selling season but already there is the unmistakable tension of serious money about to change hands.

Depending on quality, tobacco can fetch as little as 60 US cents per kg or as much as US$5 for the same quantity.

But the start of this selling season has been slow, perhaps even slightly disappointing for some farmers.

"This season the price has let me down, it feels like almost giving away my tobacco, giving them (buyers) for free. I have put so much in this only to come here to make a loss," lamented Mrs Assam from Hwedza.

"Last year I bought cows and ploughs but this year I do not think I will even manage to buy inputs. If I had a choice I think I would have taken the tobacco back home because this is already a dead deal," she said.

Mr Bonongwe from Sadza is equally downcast.

"I had hoped that coming to the floors would be better but I have realised that those traders who come at our farms offer a better price," Mr Bonongwe said.

"I sold 844kg and the prices were ranging from 60 US cents to US$1. The dealers who directly buy from the farms were offering about US$2,50 depending on the grade."

Mr Mangwiro from Hurungwe, who earned just US$360 from 600kg of the golden leaf, looked dejected as The Herald asked him to narrate his experience at the Boka Tobacco Auction Floors this year.

"I do not even know where to start right now. I made a loss. I wish I had concentrated more on maize farming than this.

"Right now I cannot imagine myself going back home. The labourers are waiting for their money. I had promised to pay them after these sales but, look, I haven't even made a quarter of my projections," said Mr Mangwiro.

"This is really stressing me, I regret ever farming tobacco, mari yatonyura iyi."

This less-than-flattering situation has not dampened the hopes of Mai Bvungu, who has just arrived at the floors from Mhondoro when we speak to her.

"It's been six years since I began growing and selling tobacco. I'm so excited each time; I cannot wait to come and sell. I incur less expenses because I farm with my children so I don't have to hire labour," she said.

Authorities say it is too early to panic over the prices.

The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board says the low prices at the start of the season are normal and will soon improve.

"There is nothing abnormal about the US$0,10/kg price because the minimum price is US$0.10/kg," TIMB chief esecutive officer Dr Andrew Matibiri said.

"Remember prices also depend on the quality of the leaf. We expect that people are now basically bring low leaves that have the lowest quality in terms of components like nicotine content."

He explained that not all farmers were getting low prices as some had notched high prices of US$4/kg.

Traders of various wares outside the auction floors are a much happier lot. In fact, they are always a happy lot.

Takura (20) of Mbare largely sells airtime and says he has doubled daily sales since the tobacco marketing season started.

"Well, the season is just in its preliminary stages but so far so good. I am selling twice as much as I do in town. I need to boost my capital so as the season unfolds I will be able to meet the demand. Even if there are other vendors I am not worried because no matter what, I know at the end of the day I would have gotten something out of the sales."

Magetsi from Southlands has a flea market table opposite the Boka sales floors, and he too - naturally - is a contented man.

"I sell clothes but mostly I sell school uniforms. This is just the beginning of the selling season but so far my pockets have attracted good fortunes," he said with an unmistakable air of satisfaction.

"This is a lifetime event because that is when I make most of my money," added Mai Tapiwa from Glen Norah.

Chris, a photographer, believes he will make a bundle this year as happy farmers seek to capture the "Kodak moment" after their crop is sold for thousands of US dollars at TSF.

"Some farmers want to capture these moments to show their children back home," he said.

But it has not been quite rosy so far.

An area of concern has been the slow processing of payments.

One sales representative, only identified as Daniel, said: "It is sad how the farmers come and spend time here. I have seen people in the same clothes for days.

"There should have a system to make the transactions faster so that the farmers do not have to stay in this environment for long."

A farmer, Mr Jealous Magungwa from Rusape, related how farmers sleep for days at the floors because it is expensive to find alternative lodgings and sometimes uncomfortable to put up with relatives.

There are showers at the floors, he says, but they cannot cope with the sheer volume of human activity.

"We also wake up as early as 4am to queue in to the floors so imagine it will be difficult to sleep anywhere else than sleeping here," said Mr Victor Gurure.

Some are happy, some are sad. It is the annual dance, and as long as tobacco offers farmers better prices than other crops, the band will play on.

tsydzash@gmail.com

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