By Kassim Adinasi
Tobacco farming in Migori County may soon be phased out as farmers are slowly shifting to maize and other subsistence crops due to alleged frustration from tobacco firms.
In the previous harvesting season, for instance, many farmers either threw away their leaves or just sold them to middlemen at throwaway prices.
The main tobacco firm, British American Tobacco (BAT), declined to purchase leaves from farmers they had not contracted, leaving over 10,000 growers in dilemma.
Juma Abwao, a tobacco farmer from Uriri, told The Standard of the misery they underwent when they tried to sell their tobacco to BAT.
“BAT strictly purchased tobacco leaves from the farmers they contracted and many farmers who were never contracted had nowhere to take their leaves. Many farmers were demoralised since they got nothing from the labour-intensive tobacco crop,” says Mr Abwao.
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He, however, says that the future of tobacco is bleak in Migori County as many farmers are shifting to alternative crops.
His sentiments were echoed by Dorothy Odhiambo who accused the Government of neglecting farmers even as they face exploitation from foreign firms.
“The foreign firms enticed the farmers to cultivate tobacco but, to their disappointment, they have incurred losses. People grew tobacco and became rich from it.
But the Government came up with sanctions on the companies and further imposed high taxes on them. In the end, the people who have remained suffering are the farmers who are living in abject poverty,” said Ms Odhiambo.
Ms Odhiambo has since abandoned tobacco for maize, a decision she says she doesn’t regret.
Richard Odhiambo, a beneficiary of tobacco farming, says he was educated in the early 1990s from tobacco returns. However, things have since changed leaving tobacco farmers the poorest in the society.
John Kithinji, BAT’s public relations officer, in an earlier interview said the contract system allows the company to offer basic extensional services to the farmers and other inputs that would ensure quality tobacco leaves.
“We have contracted 9,000 farmers and when we purchase the leaves, we give them priority. The reason behind contracting farmers is just to ease their work by offering them inputs and extensional services that will in return give them high quality leaves,” said Mr Kithinji in an earlier interview.
Migori County accounts for a total of 70 per cent of the total tobacco that is produced in Kenya for two major firms – BAT and Mastermind Tobacco (K) Ltd.
According to the Kenyan Drugs Act, cigarettes are no-longer advertised in mainstream media and the companies are also prohibited from carrying out any corporate social responsibility.
This, in words of Duncan Okuro, an economist based in Nairobi, has limited the benefits available to society from tobacco processing firms.
The Migori County government has also launched campaigns against tobacco farming. The county assembly passed a bill that will see farmers receive dairy cattle as an alternative to tobacco farming.
“Tobacco farming has reduced productivity of the arable lands in Migori County. Farmers who cultivate the crop wait for long only to get meagre returns from the leaves.
The firms exploit them by buying the leaves at low prices. The dairy cattle project will improve food security in Migori and ensure farmers have alternative source of income,” read part of the Bill passed last year by the Migori County assembly.