Silent Auction

    Rules on social distancing make for a very different tobacco marketing season in Zimbabwe this year.

    By Thulani Mpofu

    Photos: Taco Tuinstra

    All tobacco grown in Zimbabwe since 1936 has been sold at open auction and contract floors in Harare with thousands of growers thronging the southern end of the capital from March to August yearly to sell the “golden leaf.”

    Some growers traveled to Harare for hundreds of kilometers sitting precariously on top of tobacco bales loaded in small lorries while others from nearby villages brought theirs in ox-drawn carts. Many slept for days in queues out of trading floors awaiting their turns to sell their tobacco.

    Vendors selling food, clothing, radios and cellphones among other items plus agents for formal businesses selling farm inputs, vehicles and insurance policies added to the commotion around the tens of contract floors where contracted growers delivered their crop and the three open auction floors that serve self-funding growers. Bars nearby would remain open late serving growers who were known for lavish spending around their once-in-a-year paydays. Pickpockets, sex workers and beggars found business there too.

    The Covid-19 pandemic has upended it all this marketing season.

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    To promote social distancing, trading floors have been decentralized from Harare to tobacco growing localities while trading floors that remain in the city do not allow more than 20 growers inside at any time.

    Voedsel Tobacco International, a local contractor, has taken advantage of the decentralization to invest in a trading floor in Marondera, a small town 76 km northeast of Harare.

    “This is Marondera’s first tobacco trading floor and our first out of Harare,” Innocent Mahufe of Voedsel Tobacco International told Tobacco Reporter.

    “Because we are a contractor, ours is a contract buying floor. We are in Marondera to be closer to the farmer and decongest our main floor in Harare. In total, we have 16,000 farmers under contract, and of that number, we expect Marondera to serve 5,000 farmers in Mashonaland East [whose provincial capital is Marondera] and Rusape [in neighboring Manicaland Province].”

    At the new trading floor that was opened on May 1, Voedsel Tobacco employed three qualified nurses who check temperatures for all staff and farmers who call in to deliver their tobacco.

    “The nurses also sanitize our clients; they oversee the disinfection of the buying floor to ensure [the] utmost hygiene,” said Mahufe. “We also have an isolation room on site just in case anyone is found to be unwell. Social distancing is a must; the same with wearing a mask. We are fully compliant with government regulations to fight Covid-19.”

    Zimbabwean authorities are keen this year to avoid the clusters of people like this one at the Harare Tobacco Sales Floors in 2018.

    Because of tobacco’s central role in Zimbabwe’s economy, the leaf selling season is a huge moment for the country and always presided over by the national president, his deputy or a delegated minister. This year, the event was delayed from mid-March to April 29 to enable trading floors to set up systems that promote high personal hygiene and social distancing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. By May 10, Zimbabwe had 36 Covid-19 cases, nine recoveries and four deaths. President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared the disease a national disaster and ordered a seven-week national lockdown beginning March 30.

    Tobacco, affectionately known locally as the “golden leaf” not only because of its color when cured but also because of its high export potential, is Zimbabwe’s most lucrative crop and the second biggest foreign exchange earner after gold. In 2019, it generated $747 million in exports mainly to China, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates and Belgium, according to the regulator, the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB). Africa’s largest flue-cured Virginia tobacco growing nation and the world’s fourth biggest after China, Brazil and the U.S. produced 256 million kgs of the crop in 2019, a record since commercial tobacco growing started in the country in the 1890s.

    However, because of erratic rainfall, the TIMB expects output to fall to between 225 million kgs and 230 million kg this year. The regulator says 148,084 farmers grew tobacco in the October 2019 to March 2020 farming season. Were it not for Covid-19, this mass of people would have traveled to Harare from the beginning to the end of the marketing season.

    “Circumstances demand that we sell tobacco differently this year. This is a big crop for the economy, but the health of the people is supreme,” said Mahufe, whose company is planning to set up three more contract buying floors at Mvurwi and Karoi in Mashonaland West Province as well as at Rusape.

    Two weeks prior to the start of the trading period, the TIMB ordered the three licensed tobacco auction floors—Tobacco Sales Floor, Boka Tobacco Floors and Premier Tobacco Auction Floors—and the 65 buyers and contractors to decongest their premises in Harare and decentralize their operations to the four major tobacco growing provinces—Mashonaland West, Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East and Manicaland. They are bound to set up on-site isolation facilities, provide alcohol-based hand sanitizers and running water.

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    A farmer will be allowed to deliver tobacco for sale only once per week. Those selling fewer than 100 bales are barred from attending the sale of their crop but should appoint a representative who will represent other growers to be able to consolidate farmers’ bales to at least 100 and then to deliver them to the auction or contract floors. Farmers and their representatives entering the trading floors must be screened for body temperature and their identification and contact details must be recorded to facilitate easier contact tracing should the need arise in the future. Informal markets were banned.

    Nigel Foto who farms in Macheke, 35 km east of Marondera under contract from Voedsel Tobacco International, is happy having sold 43 bales between $4 per kg and $5.60 per kg since May 1, but he would have wanted to sell his crop himself not through a representative.

    “It’s a Catch-22 situation,” he said.

    “Everyone must be careful with this disease, but to be forced to sell my tobacco in my absence is concerning. This is my sweat. I must be satisfied that it is rewarded as it should, but if I am represented by someone else, I cannot be convinced 100 percent that I got a fair price.”

    Berean Mukwende, president of the Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union, is equally worried over the integrity of middlemen.

    “The farmer must pay his representative whose reliability a farmer may not know. This is an extra cost to the farmer,” he said.

    “I hope that will be reconsidered. Authorities must consider that small farmers, in their large numbers and few bales, contribute the bulk of national tobacco output. So their concerns must be heard.”

    Zimbabwe has decentralized its tobacco sales this year to prevent large gatherings.
    Andrew Matibiri (left) and Rudo Boka at the Boka Sales Floors

    Official statistics indicate that 85 percent of tobacco growers in the country are small-scale producers who plant an average of one hectare under the crop yearly, reaping about 25 bales per hectare. They normally deliver a few bales at a time spread over the marketing season in an effort to capitalize on periodic price increases.

    TIMB Chief Executive Andrew Matibiri said nine days into the marketing season that the anti-Covid-19 measures were doing well, with personal hygiene and isolation facilities in place and social distancing being upheld at trading floors.

    “We have so far licensed four companies to decentralize to Karoi, two to Mvurwi, one to Marondera and two to Rusape,” he told Tobacco Reporter on May 8.

    “Indications are that there will be two more companies buying in Karoi and one more in Mvurwi. In terms of hygiene, handwashing and so forth, we are satisfied that auction and contract floors are complying. Yes, all these present extra expenses as companies are having to lease or buy space at new sites as well as to put in place health systems, but we have no choice because of this disease.”

    Minister of Agriculture Perrance Shiri, who was the guest of honor at the launch of the 2020 marketing season, said decentralized tobacco sales help growers cut transport costs and decongest the main trading floors in Harare.

    “Please be consistent in turning your practical guidance into action to avoid continued spread of the disease. I urge everyone to continue to implement these guidelines up to the end of the season even after the lockdown is finally lifted in order to avoid resurgence in cases,” he said.

    Deliveries were slow in the first nine days of the trading season partly because of restrictions in movement and farmers still familiarizing themselves with the new guidelines. Average prices were, however, higher this season than in 2019, according to the TIMB.

    Tobacco farmer Monica Chinamasa said the quality of the crop that is delivered in the early stages of the trading period is typically poor as farmers sell the crop starting with the lower leaves that tend to be of poor quality thus attracting a low price and progressively reaping the leaves higher up the crop, which tend to be of higher quality and thus cost more.

    Social distancing is the way to go in fighting Covid-19, she said, adding that the same holds true for decentralized sales.

    “Authorities must be thorough with the regulations as this is all about people’s health, but my fear is on the sales representative,” she said.

    “Yes, it is the farmer who chooses him, but that person cannot represent the farmer fully, especially when it comes to the price of my crop. Ideally, the farmer must be present when his or her bales are being sold.”