Kasungu — Tchesa Full Primary School in Kasungu east had less than 550 learners in 2012.
The school saw most children shunning its doors because they had to help parents in tobacco production.
Head teacher Zuze Mthiko says enrollment was very low compared to children's population in the school's catchment area.
"Most of the children were occupied with work in their parent's tobacco fields. The parents felt some work would best be done by their children while they [parents] attended to other duties," says Mthiko.
He adds that duties like sewing tobacco leaves were assigned to women and children a thing which prevented the latter from going to school.
Mercy Tchale, 31, of Chankusu Village in Traditional Authority (TA) Chulu's area concurs with the head teacher.
"In Chankusu, we had problems with most children who would not attend school because parents wanted them to help in some activities in tobacco production," she says.
Apart from child labour, there were other issues in the tobacco industry which also stood out as TA Wimbe explains:
"Chiefs used to be busy with resolving wrangles between tenants and farm owners who used to argue on issues concerning wages."
Other contentious issues in the industry were wanton cutting down of trees without replacement and involvement of pregnant women and lactating mothers in tobacco production.
Research studies show that acute and chronic exposure to nicotine among women involved in the cultivation of tobacco leads to hypertension and premature deliveries. The exposure also puts the child's life at risk.
Traditional Authority TA Wimbe of Kasungu District - Pic by Vincent Khonje
Over the years, there have been concerted efforts from different stakeholders to bring sanity in tobacco production.
In 2012, Malawi Government approved Integrated Production System (IPS), a policy aimed at addressing the challenges that rocked the industry worldwide.
The IPS is basically an arrangement whereby farmers sign contract with buyers that enables the buyer to support the farmer with the necessary inputs and technical advice to achieve maximum yield of good quality leaf.
Additionally, IPS compels the buyer to ensure that there are no child labourers and other anomalies in tobacco production.
To this effect, tobacco buying company, Alliance One Tobacco Limited, rolled out an Agriculture Labour Practices (ALP) Programme with focus on child labour, work safety, fair treatment, income and compliance with the law, among others.
The company's Sustainability Manager Heatherwick Khuzenje says the ALP programme operates under certain principles that do not allow growers to involve children, lactating mothers and pregnant women at all stages of tobacco production.
Six years down the line, the company's Sustainability Manager Heatherwick Khuzenje testifies that the ALP programme has proved to be a success.
He says the programme is probably the best way of ensuring that there is respect of farmers and workers' dignity as well as child rights.
"Our ALP programme is helping achieve measurable and tangible improvements in working conditions for farm labourers. There has been increased awareness of the ALP principles by our contracted farmers and their surrounding communities.
"There is reduction in child labour cases in farms and also improved farmer compliance signifying that the programme has a positive impact in lives of many," says Khuzenje.
Even Mthiko corroborates Khuzenje's sentiments saying school attendance has now increased.
"We can boast of increased enrolment as more children are now coming to school than when there was no ALP programme.
"I'm proud to say that we now have over 875 learners at Tchesa Primary School," says Mthiko.
Ministry of Labour, Youth and Man power Development is impressed with what most tobacco companies have done in helping keep children in schools and away from tobacco production.
"Most of these companies have attempted to address child labour issues through improvements in education access, awareness and community empowerment," says the Ministry's Public Relations Officer Christina Mkutumula.
TA Wimbe is particularly impressed with Alliance One Tobacco's initiative.
"There are no longer conflicts in that chiefs have been relieved from the burden of resolving wrangles.
"Many children are now going to school to the extent that classroom blocks are not even enough," says TA Wimbe.
The traditional leader, however, says there is need to extend awareness of ALP to more communities.
"Some communities are not aware of good agricultural practices; so there is need for all tobacco companies to spread such messages.
"But there is also need for everybody to take heed of the messages so that the industry is pure and clean," says TA Wimbe.
Alliance One Tobacco Ltd Sustainability Manager Heatherwick Khuzenje - Pic by Vincent Khonje
For the programme to be a success, Alliance One Tobacco established ALP committees in all communities where it sources its tobacco.
The committees work with communities, traditional leaders and schools to spread messages about good agricultural labour practices, a thing which has proved sustainable.
Chankusu ALP committee chairperson Masiye Mwale says the benefits of the ALP programme to the community cannot be overemphasized.
"You have been told what ALP has done to schools like Tchesa which is a good thing.
"Apart from minimizing labour disputes, we are also doing more work in reforestation and most forests are now blossoming," says Mwale.