Zimbabwe takes tobacco road to agriculture recovery

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By MacDonald Dzirutwe

HARARE – Fifteen years after Zimbabwe’s sector collapsed in the face of President Robert Mugabe’s seizure of white-owned farms, its tobacco industry is again booming, with black farmers funded by firms producing a near record crop.

Production of tobacco, increasingly sold at a premium to China, was up 235 percent last year compared with 2009, propping up an agriculture sector that accounts for 18 percent of GDP.

It’s the surest sign yet of a revival of Zimbabwe’s farming, which saw output of most crops fall dramatically since Mugabe’s followers seized white-owned farms in 2000 and the government nationalised land.

From 5,000 mostly white farmers in 2000, there are more than 90,000 growing tobacco, known locally as “green gold”. Farmers prefer it to traditional cereal crops because there is a market, payment is prompt, and marketing companies provide funding in advance for seeds and equipment.

“What this shows is that black farmers are just as capable of farming if they are given the financial support,” said Edward Bhasera, a farmer waiting to deliver 60 tonnes of the crop at Zimbabwe Leaf Tobacco, one of the biggest of around 20 marketing firms that buy the crop from farmers.

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Mugabe’s land seizure drive, which he defends as necessary to correct skewed colonial land ownership, was followed by a 45 percent fall in commercial agriculture output, forcing the one-time regional food exporter import food.

Tobacco export earnings fell to $175 million by 2009 from $600 million in 2000, according to the state Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board, TIMB.

Farming was hit in part because farmers were unable to get credit without deeds for the land they farm. But in the tobacco sector, private companies like ZLT that contract farmers to produce the crop have since stepped in to fill the funding gap.