Tobacco – a history of a rich Zimbabwean heirloom crop

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TOBACCO was grown extensively in Zimbabwe prior to the arrival of the white settlers in the early 19th Century.  

In fact, in 1510, pre-colonial history records the first Portuguese trader to visit the Munhumutapa Empire, Antonio Fernandes, seeing indigenous Shona peoples rolling, sniffing, smoking and chewing indigenous tobacco.

There were several forms in which indigenous MaDzimbawhe partook of their tobacco: For example, by rolling (chimonera), sniffing (bute), smoking (fodya yemidzanga), chewing (mudhombo) and puffing fodya yechikwepa – pipe or reed smoking as the Tonga people do.

While the search for gold provided the impetus for the settlement of the Pioneer Column in Southern Rhodesia in 1890, the agricultural potential — including the suitability for growing tobacco — was recognised from the start of colonisation. 

Tobacco farming in colonial Zimbabwe, which held the misguided promise of quick wealth, spread rapidly, with the vast majority of tobacco farms situated in the provinces of Mashonaland and Manicaland.  

By 1892, nearly 300 farms had been registered while in 1893 the first European tobacco cultivation was reported. 

In the first few years of white settlement, the tobacco that farmers grew was mostly of a variety indigenous to the area.  

In the year 1902, a decade following the arrival of the first colonial settlers in 1890, tobacco was being grown commercially in many parts of the country.

A tobacco trader, G.R. Odium, imported the first American seed and having constructed the first tobacco barn in 1902, produced the first flue-cured tobacco in the country.  

From 1903 to 1910, tobacco growing in the country was characterised by considerable experimentation.  

Cigar Leaf was grown in the Eastern Highlands and near Harare, while Turkish/oriental tobacco became an important crop in Matabeleland.

After the turn of the century, ‘Virginia Leaf’ tobacco, commonly used in cigarettes, was introduced in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe). 

This, along with the development of flue-curing facilities (the process by which tobacco leaves are dried), from 1904 onwards, were part of a major development and would henceforth allow settler-tobacco farmers to sell their produce directly to the UK where flue-cured Virginia tobacco was in high demand.

Many brands of Virginia and Turkish cigarettes were manufactured on farms throughout the country. 

The first auction of flue-cured tobacco was held in Harare in 1920, when 120 000lbs (54 432kg) were sold.  

By then, five varieties of tobacco were being grown in the country; namely Flue-cured, Burley, Cigar tobacco, Maryland, Virginia and Oriental (also known as Turkish) tobacco.  

All varieties have similar methods of cultivation and grow best in the lighter sandy soils of Mashonaland.  However, tobacco reaping and curing processes vary with each variety.

In 1922, an elementary pest control and fertiliser research programme was begun in the Mazowe area.  

The first tentative Hail Insurance Cover Scheme was launched the following year in 1923.  

The number of commercial tobacco growers increased from 129 in 1925 to 987 in 1927-8 when the total production of tobacco amounted to 24 million pounds.  

However, over-production flooded the market resulting in an overnight drop in prices, forcing many tobacco farmers into bankruptcy.  

As a result, the colonial government recognised the need to regulate the industry and passed several acts over the ensuing eight years aimed at stabilising the production and marketing processes while improving the quality of the product.  

It initiated other financial assistance programmes to lure European farmers into cultivating tobacco locally. 

One of these programmes was the Ulere Motor Transportation System in 1936. 

The system provided free transportation for migrant workers en route to Southern Rhodesia’s farms and mines. 

It was of particular importance to the then white-dominated tobacco industry because, unlike the cultivation of other crops, tobacco farming was labour intensive and required a large work force for up to 10 months of a year.   

Since many indigenous Zimbabwean workers were reluctant to work on the settler-farms for such long periods, many farm workers were drawn from neighbouring countries such as Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique. 

Thus, the colonial government’s migrant labourers’ initiatives further stimulated the recovery of the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) in the 1930s.

The Rhodesian Tobacco Association was formed in 1928 and supported the government in drafting the Tobacco Market Stabilisation Act of 1935, which empowered the Tobacco Marketing Board to licence auction floors and buyers to control sales.  

Four years later, the number of tobacco growers rose from 638 in 1939 to 796 in 1945.

The Second World War further accelerated the growth of this industry when British manufacturers, being cut off from most of their supplies in the US, came to rely on Zimbabwean grown tobacco as their main source of unprocessed tobacco. 

The increase in demand and production enabled the tobacco industry to become the most important export industry in the country by 1945. 

In 1947, a tobacco growers delegation succeeded in committing British cigarette and cigar manufacturers to purchase 46 million pounds of Zimbabwean tobacco annually for the following five years. 

This was extended for a further two years during which time export sales rose to £75m.  

A similar agreement was reached with Australian cigarette manufacturers in 1949.  

In the 1950s, local tobacco growers continued to strengthen their export position vis-a-vis British cigarette manufacturers to the extent that, in 1956, local tobacco producers forced the suspension of auction sales when prices were unsatisfactory.

Another price dispute occurred in 1958, with similar consequences.  

However, given their strong market visibility, high quality tobacco and consumer demand, at the close of the 1961 auctions, British tobacco manufacturers committed themselves to an annual purchase of local tobacco for the sum of £95-£100m over the following three years.

UDI (the illegal Unilateral Declaration of Independence) declared by Ian Smith’s regime in 1965, and the ensuing 15 years of economic isolation (as a result of sanctions), constrained the expansion in the volumes of leaf produced and reduced the effective profits of growers.

Since Zimbabwe’s attainment of independence in 1980, however, both flue-cured and Burley oriental tobacco output volumes increased steadily with flue-cured tobacco production reaching 114 million kg in 1986, with burley reaching 2,5 million kg in the same year. 

Local tobacco has been famous for many years for its quality, grading and presentation, to the extent that by 1965, the country had established markets in more than 40 countries, worldwide. 

From 1938 to 1986, the tobacco yield per hectare improved from 590kg/ha to 1998kg/ha, showing a remarkable improvement in land use and crop technology.

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Zimbabwe, despite its comparatively small geographical space, became the world’s third largest tobacco producer after the US and Brazil. Tobacco has always dominated the agricultural export composition of Zimbabwe, with the largest shares of 78 percent in 1992 and 67 percent in1993. 

Low labour costs and high yields made Zimbabwe a more competitive producer of quality tobacco than its Brazilian and American rivals.

Tobacco production in Zimbabwe is mainly for export; only two-three percent of the total was consumed on the domestic market.  

Tobacco exports grew since the 1980s, with half of Zimbabwe’s tobacco crop exported to the EU.  

The favourable tobacco prices on the international market between 1994 and 1997 resulted in a boost in production of the crop, with Flue-cured tobacco dominating tobacco exports.  

The price of locally produced tobacco rose again in 1994 and peaked in 1996 at US$2,94 in response to a world shortage.  

Tobacco exports. however, fell again in value between 1997-2000.

Today, in line with the Ministry of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Development’s expanded and diversified communal farming programme and his excellency’s concerted drive to reinvigorate Zimbabwe’s agro-economic value, tobacco will no doubt continue to affirm its status as an export leader. However, Zimbabwe needs to revitalise and digitalise the tobacco industry. 

To be continued… 

Dr Tony M. Monda is currently conducting Veterinary Epidemiology, Agronomy, Food Security and Agro-economic research in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa. He holds a PhD, DBA, DVM. E-mail tonym.MONDA@gmail.com

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