Tobacco remains a critical cash crop for Zimbabwean farmers, but its long-term future is dubious as anti-smoking campaigns around the world slash youth-smoking and ever higher taxes hit the older addicts. Zimbabwe’s crop this season is expected to be a little below 200 million kg, compared to 216 million kg last year and the late and patchy rainfall has hit quality, reducing the average prices by around 9 percent. With 42,5 million kg sold in the first 30 days of the sales bringing in US$117,9 million for the farmers, the importance of the crop is not in doubt and although prices are a little lower the contract crop, which is usually better funded when it comes to inputs and where advice is usually easier to get, has held up a lot better than the pure auction crop.
While demand is contracting in Europe, a traditional market leader, it is still rising in Asia. But as countries in that continent continue developing, they start the process we see elsewhere to cut demand using a combination of educational programmes and tax hikes.
Most programmes around the world try to get some older smokers to give up, or at least cut down, but put more emphasis on stopping young people starting in the first place. Singapore is going the furthest with plans in place to ban people born in the 21st century from ever being allowed to buy tobacco legally.
We see the effects in Zimbabwe already. Along with much of the world, it is now very unfashionable for young people to smoke and very few are now taking up the habit, despite the low intensity of anti-smoking campaigns in one of the world’s top exporters.
So the slight drop in prices this year, while hopefully a blip in the short-term, might become more permanent as international demand falters over time. There is no immediate need for farmers to switch right away, but obviously we need to start looking at other crops that can provide a decent income, will grow on sandy soils and can tolerate a reasonable amount of drought.
There is not much in the way of food crops that will work as a substitute. So we need to look further. Bio-fuel stock is one obvious solution. Jatropha was once seen as a panacea, but there is clearly more work needed on this crop and its processing before it can become a regular cash crop. It will one day be a leading source of energy and we can make sure that research continues.
Another replacement for tobacco might well be tobacco, but grown for an entirely different product. South African Airways and Boeing now have a well-established programme of turning tobacco seed into jet fuel. The varieties of tobacco used are free of nicotine and in any case are grown for seed rather than the leaves.
As a neighbour with some of the best tobacco land in the world there is an obvious incentive for Zimbabwe to look hard at what is happening next door and be ready to switch varieties as the opportunity arises.
There could well be other crops that meet the needs of farmers and consumers. But we should be using the breathing spell we now have to do the necessary research so that when tobacco goes we can still make money, both as farmers and as a country.