Home Discussion Papers Enviro Africa Small-scale tobacco farming in Africa: A vicious circle
Small-scale tobacco farming in Africa: A vicious circle
Written by Feri Gwata (1) Monday, 18 April 2011 08:10

There is growing interest in tobacco farming in many rural communities in Africa. The criticisms levelled against it notwithstanding, many small-scale farmers are resorting to tobacco farming to supplement household income. With rainfall becoming increasingly erratic, the production of food crops has declined significantly in recent years. Consequently, farmers are resorting to the cultivation of cash crops such as tobacco as a risk management strategy. In comparison to traditional food crops, tobacco market prices tend to be significantly higher. As such, tobacco production provides relatively high economic returns to household resources. 

However, small-scale tobacco farmers find themselves in a vicious circle. While tobacco farming affords them the opportunity to increase household income in the short term, it is inextricably linked to ecosystem degradation. The main variety grown by small-scale farmers in developing countries requires an energy-intensive drying process (curing) in specialised barns which are usually fuelled by wood. As such, tobacco curing entails considerable wood consumption resulting in extensive deforestation. Both deforestation and the burning of fuels contribute significantly to greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In addition, because tobacco plants are highly susceptible to diseases, tobacco farming entails the extensive use of pesticides which contribute to land pollution. Against this backdrop, this paper discusses the development conundrum: can small-scale farmers strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation?  

Tobacco farming as a risk management strategy

Crop diversification is a common risk management strategy among resource-poor farmers, who have limited access to risk diffusion mechanisms such as crop insurance. By combining farming activities with low positive covariance, farmers are able to mitigate income risk. With increased variability in both rainfall timing and rainfall level, many small-scale farmers are venturing into cash crop production as a means of cushioning the impact of poor food crop harvests. Specifically, farmers are increasingly diversifying into tobacco, which has a guaranteed market and sells at a much higher price than most food crops. In Zimbabwe for example, the average price of a kilogramme of maize is US$ 0.32 while a kilogramme of tobacco is currently selling at an average price of US$ 2.09.(2) Given this huge price disparity the growing interest in tobacco farming is to be expected, especially at a time when rural livelihoods are under immense threat.

Judith Hungwe is a small-scale farmer from Zimbabwe’s Mashonaland East Province who ventured into tobacco farming two years ago. The province is characterised by moderate to low rainfall and temperatures ranging between 15.5-30◦C(3); conditions which are conducive for tobacco production. The crop (popularly known as the golden leaf) thrives in warm climates with a sufficiently long dry season, necessary for harvesting and curing the crop.(4)

 Hungwe, who has thirty years of farming experience, explains that the decision to venture into tobacco production was not a foregone conclusion. While she was aware of the financial benefits, she was initially deterred by its labour intensity. “It is hard work; the drying especially. You have to get up at least twice during the night to put more wood in the furnace until the temperature reaches 70◦C. Bear in mind, the drying process takes seven days. I already had so much work on my hands, growing maize and paprika and my vegetable garden.” However, frequent crop failure and the noticeable improvement in the quality of life of neighbouring farmers who ventured into tobacco farming before her, persuaded Hungwe to eventually follow suit. She has since allocated two hectares of land to tobacco cultivation and has built a specialised curing barn out of baked brick in which she dries the tobacco after harvesting. In addition she has converted one of her thatched kitchens into a storage room in which she keeps the dried tobacco before transporting it to market.

Hungwe explains that her household’s quality of life has improved considerably since she began tobacco farming. Although the cultivation process is notably labour and input intensive, her household income has increased significantly. With the additional income she is now able to afford goods and services which she could not afford a few years ago. Most importantly, she managed to install a home solar system which powers a few lamps, small television set and radio, affording her access to information on current affairs. Further, she has taken advantage of increased Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) connectivity in the district by purchasing a cell phone, which is an essential means of maintaining direct and constant communication with the market. Previously, small-scale farmers lacked information on commodity prices and often had to travel to the point of sale to make enquiries. This was costly, both financially and in terms of labour hours spent away from the farm. In addition, and perhaps most important, is the reduced income risk. As Hungwe explains, “Before I started growing tobacco, if I had a poor crop, I knew my family would go hungry. Now, I don’t worry so much because I always have a little money saved.”

Environmental and health concerns

Hungwe’s narrative is undoubtedly encouraging. However, from an environmental perspective, tobacco production poses a heavy toll on the environment, particularly in developing countries where artificially cured tobacco (i.e. using heat from wood and coal) is the variety of choice. Following harvest, flue-cured tobacco undergoes an energy-intensive drying process (curing) in a specialised barn in which heated air extracts water from the tobacco leaves. These barns are usually fuelled by wood and as Hungwe notes above, the drying process lasts seven days. As such, tobacco curing entails excessive wood consumption. On this issue, the World Health Organisation (WHO) notes that “while the global share of agricultural land used for tobacco growing is less than 1%, its impact on global deforestation is 2-4%, making a visible footprint for climate change.”(5) One study on tobacco production in Malawi finds that tobacco-growing accounted for 26% of deforestation between 1990 and 1995(6), while another study reports that in the Urambo tobacco-growing region of Tanzania, tobacco farmers use an average of 23m3 of stacked wood for curing per season.(7)

In addition to deforestation, tobacco production entails the extensive use of toxic pesticides which pose a threat to both environmental and human safety. Because the crop is exceptionally prone to diseases, it often requires 16 applications of pesticides during the growing period.(8) Pesticides such as aldicarb, chlorpyrifos, and 1,3-dichloropropene are especially toxic and are harmful to birds, fish and earthworms, thereby contributing to biodiversity losses. In addition, these pesticides often leach into ground water and subsequently contaminate drinking supplies.(9) Further, tobacco farmers are exposed to green tobacco sickness (GTS), an illness caused by the absorption of nicotine through the skin from contact with wet tobacco leaves. Symptoms include nausea, weakness, dizziness, abdominal cramps and fluctuations in blood pressure and heart rates.(10)

Economic development and environmental conservation

Small-scale farmers are caught in a vicious circle. Given that a large proportion of the constraints they face are of a financial nature, an increase in household income is undoubtedly one of the key means of improving their quality of life. Several studies confirm that crop diversification can result in income enhancement and a reduction in income variation.(11) With rainfall becoming increasingly inconsistent and frequent crop failure in the absence of risk diffusion mechanisms, the adoption of cash crops has become an important risk management strategy. Given tobacco’s relatively high financial returns, its appeal to a farmer living on less than a dollar a day is immediately apparent. However, while incomes increase and the quality of life improves in the short run, there is a price to pay in the long term.

With tobacco farming, the land becomes increasingly prone to soil erosion as a result of forest devastation; groundwater is contaminated; and the health of farmers deteriorates, due to respiratory and kidney problems associated with the use of toxic pesticides. Against this backdrop, the fundamental question is whether small-scale farmers can strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation.

If we can accept that tobacco cultivation provides small-scale farmers with an important safety net against increased climate variability, there are several measures which should be put in place to balance economic development with the sustainable management of natural resources.

Tobacco curing is a cause for concern. However, given that flue-cured tobacco is the variety of choice (as it sells at a higher price than air dried tobacco) in developing countries, curing is unavoidable. Improving the efficiency of the curing process is therefore imperative. Increased energy efficiency and better combustion in the furnace can be achieved through improvements in the barn structure and furnace.(12) Improved insulation is of particular importance as it will subsequently reduce fuel consumption. It is estimated that a barn with well-insulated walls, roof and floor can save 10-20% of fuel consumed per cure.(13) Another practical energy-efficient curing measure is harvesting only ripe tobacco, which requires a shorter curing time and thus less heat loss.(14) In addition, farmers are encouraged to use alternative fuels to wood, such as straw and sawdust.

There is great need to promote the use of alternative energy sources for the curing process. While reforestation programmes are undoubtedly the best solution to the problem, tree planting has always posed a challenge for rural communities given the high demand for land for growing food crops, wood for fuel, and timber for construction.  As one report notes, the general assumption regarding wood usage in resource-poor areas appears to be that it is a free good which does not require any payment to be made towards its replacement.(15) Moreover, it is often difficult to ensure that farmers adhere to tree planting regulations. As a way of mitigating wood consumption, Zimbabwe’s Hurungwe Rural District Council (RDC) issued a directive in June 2010 which makes it mandatory for all tobacco farmers in the district to use coal for tobacco curing.(16) Under this directive, only farmers with woodlots that match the hectarage under tobacco are allowed to use firewood.(17) Commenting on this issue, the RDC Chief Executive Officer, Joram Moyo notes, “There is no change as regards Council’s position on the coal issue…While this new programme may be unpopular to some farmers, they should realise that this is the only way in which the local authority can safeguard the future.”(18) The RDC entered into a partnership with Hwange colliery, whereby the RDC buys coal from the colliery at subsidised prices, which registered tobacco farmers subsequently purchase. The use of alternative energy should also be coupled with modified barn designs to reduce emissions.

However, even in the presence of these conservation measures and barn modifications, the heavy pesticide use associated with tobacco cultivation is worrisome. In light of the health and environmental impact of some of these pesticides, there is a great need to provide farmers with training in the handling of these toxic pesticides. It is the responsibility of tobacco companies to create awareness among farmers vis-a-vis the health risks associated with tobacco production and to provide training in safe application methods. In addition, tobacco companies should be tasked with finding ways of reducing the amount of pesticides used in tobacco cultivation.

In light of these environmental and health risks, farmers should be encouraged to diversify into other types of high value crops such as soybeans, sunflowers and groundnuts, to lower the dependence on tobacco production. As with most commodities, tobacco prices often fluctuate perpetuating the high income variation these farmers already face. Although not as profitable as tobacco, these other crops do not require extensive use of toxic pesticides. Further, farmers can also adopt drought-resistant food crops, such as sorghum and millet, to cushion the impact of poor food crop harvests.

Concluding remarks

Rural livelihoods are under immense threat, and small-scale farmers are exploring various options in a bid to build resilience. Tobacco farming is undoubtedly lucrative in the short term and one can appreciate its appeal to resource-poor farmers who face extreme financial constraints. However, the heavy toll it poses on the environment and the associated health risks are of great concern. If tobacco farming persists in the absence of environmental regulation, household income might rise in the short term. However, as forest cover dwindles, farmers will need to travel longer distances to gather firewood. They will battle with soil erosion and their health will deteriorate. Undoubtedly this will have a negative impact on their quality of life, and might even leave them in a worse-off position. This begs the question, are resource-poor farmers doomed to remain poor?  

It is not entirely clear whether farmers can indeed strike a balance between economic development and environmental conservation. Success stories from African rural communities are not well documented, which gives the impression that tobacco cultivation and sustainable resource management are incompatible. This may not be true, but there is a dearth of information to the contrary. Small-scale farmers need to eat and the environment needs to be conserved. What then, is the way forward? Can resource-poor farmers ever break this vicious circle of poverty?


(1) Contact Feri Gwata through Consultancy Africa Intelligence’s Enviro Africa Unit ( This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it )
(2) Nelson Gore Banya, ‘Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Earnings Rise 33% as Sales Jump Outweighs Drop in Price’, Bloomberg, 1 March 2011, http://www.bloomberg.com.
(3) Mano, R., and Nhemachena, C., ‘Assessment of the Economic Impacts of Climate Change on Agriculture in Zimbabwe: A Ricardian Approach’, CEEPA Discussion Paper No.11 Special Series on Climate Change and Agriculture in Africa, July 2006.
(4) Geist, H.J., 1999. ‘Global Assessment of deforestation related to tobacco farming’, Tobacco Control, 8, pp. 18-28.
(5) ‘Tobacco and the environment’, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) fact sheets. August 2009, http://www.ash.org.uk.
(6) Millington, A. and Jepson, W. (eds.), Land-change science in the tropics: Changing agricultural landscapes. Springer: New York. 2008. Ch 14.
(7) Mangora, M., 2006. Ecological Impact of tobacco farming in miombo woodlands of Urambo District, Tanzania. African Journal of Ecology, 43(4), pp. 385-391.
(8) Bryan Farrell, ‘Tobacco Stains. The global footprint of a deadly crop’, In These Times, 1 October 2007, http://www.inthesetimes.com.
(9) Ibid.
(10) ‘Tobacco and the environment’, Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) fact sheets. August 2009, http://www.ash.org.uk.
(11) Komarek, A.M., 2010. Crop diversification decisions: the case of vanilla in Uganda, Quarterly Journal of International Agriculture, 49(3), pp. 227-242.
(12) Tippayawong, N., Tantakitti, C., and Thavornun, S., 2004. Energy and emission based performance of an experimental tobacco bulk-curing barn, Chiang Mai University Journal, 3(1), pp. 43-52.
(13) T. David Reed, ‘Curing Tobacco. Flue-Cured Tobacco Curing’, http://pubs.ext.vt.edu.
(14) Ibid.
(15)Geist, H.J., 1999. ‘Global Assessment of deforestation related to tobacco farming’, Tobacco Control, 8, pp. 18-28.
(16) Noah Pito, ‘Zimbabwe: Firewood Ban Falls on Deaf Ears’, The Herald, 10 September 2010, http://allafrica.com.
(17) Ibid.
(18) Ibid.


Facebook Twitter Google+ LinkedIn Plaxo