Malawi: Experts Recommend Expedited Replacement to Tobacco

Agricultural experts have emphasized the need for Malawi to urgently diversify away from tobacco, which is currently facing serious challenges both on the local and international markets due to the growing anti-smoking lobby.

Tobacco has been Malawi's major foreign exchange (forex) earner. However, its market continues to be threatened by health hazards on both production and consumption sides.

To avert an economic crisis that could arise from continued dependency on tobacco, the Malawi Agriculture Policy Advancement and Transformation Agenda (MwAPATA Institute) on Thursday night engaged economic and agricultural experts in panel discussion on what the Malawian farmer should do.

Various speakers at the panel discussion agreed on the need to quickly diversify away from tobacco.

However, the National Smallholder Farmers' Association of Malawi (NASFAM) Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Betty Chinyamunyamu, emphasized that farmers need to identify a number of crops; and not a single crop to replace tobacco.

"When we talk about alternatives to tobacco, we should not think about a single crop. Let us think about a basket of crops. We should look at commodities that have export potential, crops that have demand on the market," said Chinyamunyamu.

She cited cereals such as maize, legumes, horticultural crops, coffee, tea, cotton, cannabis, minerals and wheat as some of the crops that can potentially replace the troubled tobacco gold leaf.

But Chinyamunyamu was quick to point out that lack of structured markets for various crops continues to frustrate farmers to produce more of the cited crops.

She asked the government to put in place deliberate policies that would protect the farmers from exploitation by vendors.

In his presentation, Chancellor College-based political analyst and team leader for Centre for Social Research, Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, recommended that discussions on possibilities of smallholder agricultural commercialisation ought to be placed in the broader context of the triple crisis Malawi is experiencing: land, productivity and marketing crisis.

Chinsinga observed that land per capita continues to diminish, yet a definitive land legislative framework is not settled-remain hugely in a state of flux.

"Farmers' productivity levels continue to decline due to a combination of several factors, and increasingly worsened by the fragile climatic conditions. Farmers have limited access to lucrative markets for them to commercialise- alternative marketing arrangements beyond ADMARC have not worked out the expected magic," he said.

On what needs to be done, Chinsinga was emphatic: "Nothing really new: we have all the requisite policies on the shelf-what remains is implementation of these policies to their logical conclusion with dynamism, flexibility, adaptability, and embedded culture continuous learning."

He said the triple crisis calls for policy refocusing, reviews (learning, flexibility and adaptability) and implementation in a manner that brings about the desired strategic impact.

Additionally, the concept calls for investment in research and development, extension services and rural infrastructure to ensure that smallholder farmers participate in emerging markets.

"Smallholder farmers are not homogenous: policy interventions should be systematically tailored to the needs of different categories of smallholder farmers-one-size-fits-all policies are destined to fail," he said.

MwAPATA Institute acting executive director William Chadza told Nyasa Times that the panel discussion was organized in response to the appeal by President Lazarus Chakwera to various stakeholders to initiate debate on the need to find alternatives to tobacco.

Apparently, on 20 April 2021, during the official opening of the 2021 Tobacco Auction Floors in Kanengo, Chakwera told the attention that tobacco demand around the world is not only declining, but also doing so sharply and irreversibly.

He said Malawi now needed an exit strategy to transition tobacco farmers to more sustainable and profitable crop alternatives.

Additionally, Chakwera, in his State of the Nation Address, directed the Ministry of Agriculture to begin consultations and a radical search for a basket of crops that can serve as alternatives to tobacco.

"It is against this backdrop that the MwAPATA Institute organized this Roundtable. The objective of this Roundtable is to initiate a conversation around identifying promising agricultural value chains that can serve as alternatives to tobacco crop. Hence, the theme: "If Not Tobacco, then What?" said Chadza.

He said MwAPATA Institute believes this is the beginning of a very important journey that will start with a gradual reduced dependence on tobacco and eventually lead to elimination of the dominance of tobacco crop in Malawian economy by year 2030 in line with President Chakwera's directive.

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