• April 17, 2024

To Boldly Go

 To Boldly Go

Photo: sharafmaksumov

Photo: sharafmaksumov

Tobacco veteran Murray Prince is setting up tobacco operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

By George Gay

Shortly after I had been asked to write a piece about leaf tobacco operations in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), my daily newspaper carried, on the same page, a story on each of these countries. The stories focused on conflicts of various kinds and therefore appeared generally negative, which is not unusual for the coverage many British people would see of these two countries and, in fact, of many other African nations. There is no doubt that, seen from the outside by the person in the street, and, for some marginalized citizens, seen from the inside, the DRC and Uganda have their problems—some of them grievous and seemingly self-imposed.

But, with a few obvious exceptions, businesspeople tend to see things differently. Countries, wherever they are in the world, are seen basically as producers or markets that are more or less attractive than other countries. Conflicts comprise a negative factor when appraising a country, but they are not seen as barriers, providing those conflicts do not impinge directly and oppressively on business interests.

Such an approach can seem to be unethical, but, in one way at least, it can be seen to be the exact opposite. Shifting the focus back to Africa, businesses working within the leaf tobacco industry have been generally good at taking a practical approach and building operations, including, importantly, livelihoods, in places where others might fear to tread.

And so it is that Murray Prince, an experienced Africa-tobacco hand, is in the process of setting up and registering Market Link Services, through which he aims to coordinate various leaf operations in East Africa and the DRC, where he is working with Idi Taban, a businessman based in Kampala, Uganda, whose interests include a tobacco procurement and trading operation in the DRC: GGLC. Taban’s Uganda-based company, KKT, has interests, too, in transport, property and regional trading, and the plan, still being finalized, would see Taban retain overall control of his tobacco business in the DRC while handing over operational control and the day-to-day running of it to Prince.

In this role, Prince would manage all stages of GGLC’s DRC tobacco operations, including leaf production and procurement; he would oversee operations in Uganda, where the DRC tobacco would be processed and packed before being exported; and he would be responsible for marketing, sales and communications.

The Formula

Businesses in the leaf tobacco industry have been generally good at building operations and livelihoods in places where others might fear to tread. | Photo: Francesca Volpi

The systems necessary to make all this transparent and workable have been put in place during the past 12 months, but, even still, Prince has no illusions about the challenges involved in operating in the DRC and, indeed, readily admits that his previous time there as a trader involved in production and procurement, from 2009 to 2012, was not easy and ultimately ended in failure. Nevertheless, failure is a form of experience that can be turned around, and he is up for the challenge, telling me that part of his role would require him to anticipate the risks and disruptions that, without early interventions, could cause operational challenges.

On the positive side, he has long experience in various African countries, which means, he says, that he is familiar with the strengths, weaknesses and sensitivities of these markets and that he has a “formula” for what needs to be done—by all participating parties—to make a success of the entire operation. His expertise, however, is in two broad areas, one of which encompasses sales, marketing and exports while the other comprises the skills, including those in specialized project development, management and supporting roles, required to set up new projects.

Originally from Zimbabwe, Prince started in the leaf trade in Malawi with Limbe Leaf, which later became part of Universal, before returning to Zimbabwe to work with Standard Commercial and, later, Zimbabwe Tobacco Brokers. He was then involved in or instrumental in three startups: Tobacco Handlers Zimbabwe, which also operated in Malawi, Leaf Buyers Zimbabwe and Southern Leaf Brokers. Since 2013, he has lived in the U.K. from where he has operated a tobacco consultancy and become involved in other trade-related interests.

Building Relationships

So, what are GGLC’s aims? Well, Prince says the first aim is to maintain the stable and sustainable production and procurement system and infrastructure that, for the past 15 years, have operated to the advantage of the company, its employees and the regional community, including tobacco farmers, their employees and families, who have also benefited from additional support services. And using that production and procurement system as a base, the next aim is to establish GGLC as the reliable leaf exporting company operating in the DRC, building long-term, trusted and mutually beneficial relations with international players that recognize the potential of the country’s niche market.

That’s it in a nutshell, but the devil will be in the details. Maintaining the production and procurement system will require ensuring the smooth operation of farmer registrations, agronomy support, input availability, storage and dispersal; and leaf buying, grading and baling. Then, Prince says, to avoid disruption as the tobacco is moved to Uganda for processing, close attention will be paid to logistics, compliance and documentation appropriate for meeting obligations for both the DRC and Uganda as well as internationally.

The plan, he says, is to have, as now, the DRC tobacco processed ahead of export at a facility in Jinja, Uganda, which is run by the Nilus Group, a partnership between Premium Tobacco and Uganda Tobacco Services that between them promote Ugandan Burley and dark-fired tobacco. Once processed, the tobacco will be moved for shipping from Jinja to Mombasa, Kenya, by an independent logistics group, Agrivest Shipping.

Straightening the Hassles

To the layman, this can start to look like a lot of effort for possibly not enough reward. So why do it? After all, even the GGLC DRC target of 10 million kg green weight is a drop in the ocean set against what can be grown in Zimbabwe, where, because of the importance of the tobacco crop, the infrastructure and systems, albeit probably not perfect, have been in place and functioning for years.

So let me see if I can get this right. It is worth the effort if the tobacco fits well into a final buyer’s cigarette blend in respect of both sensory factors and cost. Therefore, once a tobacco has been found to be a right fit, and the generally flavorful tobaccos produced in Africa have been highly prized by manufacturers for decades, it all comes down to price. But there are two prices in play here: the dollar price and the hassle price. Some big players have tried their hands in the DRC and Uganda and left, some having found that the hassle price was too high. The idea is that a smaller, more flexible player with experience in negotiating the inevitable business, industry and political chicanes can straighten out those hassles, which, as mentioned above, is why Prince is getting on board.

Much of what can be said about the DRC also applies to Uganda, where tobacco has been grown since at least the 1920s when BAT was active there but where, since the departure of that company’s stabilizing influence, flue-cured operations are currently said to lack a stable and balanced market. But therein lies an opportunity. Although BAT is no longer directly involved in the Ugandan leaf tobacco market, vestiges of the production expertise it left behind are still present, and so Taban and Prince believe the time is right to grasp the opportunity of entering the market for flue-cured tobacco. Prince told me there was a circularity, almost a natural rhythm to the way that smaller producers came into and went out of operation and that he believed the time was right in the region to take advantage of the moment and engage with grower communities and government departments that were now well disposed to such an initiative.

This seems as though it could be a good assessment of the situation. According to an October 2021 story by Gilbert Mwijuke that was published in the East African newspaper, leaf tobacco production in Uganda peaked at 18 million kg in 2013, when more than 75,000 farmers were said to be engaged in the industry. Since then, however, things have fallen apart somewhat, and by 2020, less than 10 million kg was produced, apparently at least partly because of grower prices. Geoffrey Ozuma, a crop scientist at the National Agricultural Research Organization in Hoima and a former tobacco farmer, was quoted in the story as saying that many farmers had been discouraged by declining prices. When certain companies came into the market, he said, prices dropped because those companies started providing farmers with inputs but then set low prices for leaf tobacco produced with it. “That uncertainty, coupled with rising costs of production due to increasing scarcity of essential inputs such as firewood, forced many farmers to give up,” he said.

How accurate these figures are is not known, and Prince treats most of the figures available with some skepticism. FAO figures tend to suggest that—presumably total—tobacco production in Uganda has been remarkably constant in recent years: 31.688 million kg in 2017, 32.762 million kg in 2018, 31.992 million kg in 2019, 32.277 million kg in 2020 and 32.563 million kg in 2021. Meanwhile, FAO figures for the DRC have been similarly constant: 3.774 million kg in 2017, 3.655 million kg in 2018, 3.562 million kg in 2019, 3.694 million kg in 2020 and 3.667 million kg in 2021.

But I guess that historical data is perhaps not important, providing as it is only a guide to what was possible in the past under the conditions and in the environment that then pertained. What is possible in the future will depend on any number of factors that are not necessarily easy to identify at present. That’s probably why it’s necessary to have people such as Prince and Taban in place. They’ve been there before and seen the changes wrought by business, industry and political upheavals.