Tobacco use continues to be one of the most significant preventable risk factors to most non-communicable diseases. Put simply, tobacco kills millions of people prematurely each year and these numbers are increasing particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Thus, decreasing tobacco use should be at the core of all governments’ public health strategies. Yet, tobacco control continues to face dogged, well-organized and well-financed opposition.
The opposition to tobacco control often comes in the form of supposed economic logic. In particular, opponents of tobacco control all over the world continue to use the alleged harm of tobacco control policies to smallholder tobacco farmers as a reason to curtail these public health efforts. Moving beyond the well established dynamic that it is global markets driving demand for any one country’s tobacco leaf – tobacco control in Kenya will have little or no short-run effect on its tobacco farmers – it has not been made sufficiently clear if tobacco farming is even an economic livelihood worth pursuing for Kenyan farmers. In this report, we tackle this knowledge gap by reporting the results of and analysing a nationally-representative individual-level, economic survey of nearly 600 Kenyan smallholder tobacco farmers.
The results of this rigorous survey demonstrate that the livelihoods of most smallholder tobacco farmers are rarely financially lucrative. In fact, the results suggest strongly that many tobacco farmers are making only minimal profits when the principal (non-labour) inputs are subtracted from the sales of their tobacco leaf. Moreover, tobacco growing is one of the most labour-intensive crops and if you include even a conservative estimate of the cost of the farming household’s labour, a significant proportion of tobacco farmers are operating at a net financial loss. Put simply, many Kenyan tobacco farmers would likely improve their livelihoods by pursuing other economic activities.
Kenya is a Party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which compels parties to help tobacco farmers find viable alternative livelihoods (Article 17). This research demonstrates that many farmers are unhappy with growing tobacco and open to switching to alternatives. It also suggests that improved access to credit and better supply chains for alternative products could serve Kenyan tobacco farmers particularly well as they seek to switch away from tobacco. As well, the government should consider playing a more active role monitoring the tobacco companies that grade and price the tobacco, oftentimes within the constraints of contracts that appear to strongly favour the tobacco leaf buying companies over the farmers.