Tobacco farmers at their wits’ end

Obert Chifamba Agri-Insight
Tobacco farmers’ woes at the auction floors started as a blooper by banks that was tolerable and mildly transgressive but it has evolved into a repetitive, insipid seasonal mess that is creating paupers out of potentially vibrant business people. These farmers are confronted with new challenges every day – from producing the golden leaf for an expanding global market in an illiquid economy while meeting strict new World Health Organisation (WHO) health requirements, to producing food on fewer acres while minimising their environmental footprint.

But no one seems to appreciate the crucial role they are playing in building the economy of Zimbabwe.

Their situation seemed to have almost become naturalised until recently when they ended up attacking bank employees and buyers over non-payment of their cash for the tobacco they delivered.

When I heard about the disturbances at the Tobacco Sales Floors (TSF), I thought maybe the farmers were overreacting but alas, after visiting the floors and chatting to some of the farmers hearing their side of the story, I realised they had every reason to be livid.

Of course this is not an attempt to condone violence but like any other human being these farmers’ patience had been stretched to breaking point.

They gave me a list of problems they are facing at the floors each time they deliver their tobacco.

These problems sadly follow them back to their homes after concluding their transactions so they have nowhere to run.

Topping the list of their grievances is money and, interestingly, the rest of the problems that make the list are also money-related.

After delivering their tobacco, they have to wait for between two and three days to receive a voucher confirming the sale then they wait another three or so days for the money to reflect in their accounts, they said.

Having confirmed that the cash is reflecting in their accounts, they then go through the most trying time of the process.

The farmers are waiting for between two and three weeks to access the money realised from the sale of their tobacco.

But the most annoying thing is that banks are giving them just $50 like the rest of the people even after the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe (RBZ) had suggested otherwise when it instructed the financial institutions to pay farmers $1 000 for the first sale followed by $300 for subsequent sales.

When this writer visited TSF, visibly distraught farmers were just milling around within the premises- all waiting to access cash.

“I cannot go home because I have already spent most of the $50 I managed to withdraw paying for food that I have been getting on credit since I came here last week.

People that I hired to grade and pack my tobacco and the transporter are all waiting for their payments from me. My children also need fees to go to school but all this is just impossible with the paltry $50 that banks are giving us.

“Isn’t it that buyers come here with money that is meant for buying tobacco and paying us but being told that there is no cash does not make sense to me,” commented one irate farmer who begged not to be identified.

Most of them are falling prey to loan sharks that give them cash and demand a double payment after just five days and the farmers have no option but to take that option.

Some unscrupulous people are reportedly giving the farmers all the cash they want but not before debiting between 15 and 20 percent of the entire amount, which is daylight robbery.

There are also reports of fraudsters tricking unsuspecting and desperate farmers into believing that they know some people from banks and can easily acquire cash for them so they collect ATM cards and personal identification numbers (PINs) from the farmers before vanishing into thin air.

By the time the farmers realise the trickery, the fraudsters would have used most of the cash from the accounts.

Commercial sex workers too are on the prowl at the floors and are reportedly preying on the desperate farmers especially after they (farmers) spend weeks waiting for payments and staying in the open in most cases.

Prostitutes are alleged to have honed their hunting skills and now pretend to be very hospitable and invite unsuspecting farmers to their homes where all forms of the unthinkable things are done to squeeze cash out of the farmers when they eventually get it.

It is also alleged that commercial sex workers are offering their services on credit to some desperate farmers and demanding their dues once the farmers get paid, which together with other debts, obviously eats into the paltry $50 that they would have withdrawn from the banks to leave them almost penniless.

Besides disrupting preparations for next season, the current illiquid situation has also had a telling effect on the social obligations of the farmers.

Social relations are also souring easily especially with those that offered various services against the promise that they would be paid as soon as the golden leaf had been sent to the floors.

The tobacco farmers are literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. They are in a real pickle!

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