Sub-Saharan Africa is a major and increasingly important producer of tobacco leaf for the global market. In the last decade, there has been a marked shift in tobacco leaf production from high income countries to Africa. Both the size of the area under tobacco cultivation and amount of tobacco leaf produced have increased markedly in Africa since 2003. This increase is largely driven by narratives of economic prosperity for both government revenue and tobacco farmers’ livelihoods. However, there is mounting empirical evidence showing that most smallholder farmers in major tobacco leaf-producing countries such as Malawi and Zambia are making little profits, if not losses from tobacco farming. Considering the labour-intensive nature of tobacco farming and the evidence questioning the economic viability of tobacco farming, it remains unclear why farmers continue to grow tobacco in these countries. Recently, The United States even suspended tobacco imports from Malawi because of concerns about child labor.

Tobacco farmers’ livelihoods are relevant to policy not least because Article 17 of the WHO FCTC requires tobacco-growing countries to promote economically viable alternatives. Thus, understanding the factors that shape tobacco-growing households’ decision-making is critical for approaching supply reduction strategies. In new research published recently in Nicotine and Tobacco Research, researchers from four African countries and North America analysed primary survey data to understand the reasons why smallholder farmers in Kenya, Malawi and Zambia started and continue to grow tobacco. This research follows up on closely-related work in Asia.

Most farmers started and are currently growing tobacco because they believed it was the only economically-viable crop. Not surprisingly, and similar to Indonesia and Philippines, the well-structured market for tobacco leaf continues to be an important reason why farmers grow tobacco. Farmers like that they can get “credit” in the form of upfront inputs from leaf-buying companies (to be paid back when they sell the leaf, though only to that company). They also indicated that the assured market—even if prices were typically very low—helped mitigate the market uncertainty that was common with other crops.

The research also found important local differences in the reasons why farmers started and continue to grow tobacco. For instance, in Kenya, 21% of participants in Meru county started cultivating tobacco because of incentives from the tobacco companies compared to less than 4% of participants from other major tobacco-growing counties, Bungoma, Busia and Migori, suggesting a strong institutional dimension. Comparing the reasons why farmers started tobacco farming to the reasons why they are currently growing tobacco, 77% of the farmers who started because it was highly lucrative are currently growing tobacco because they believe it is the only economically-viable crop or report simply having become accustomed to growing it.

By Kenya Open Data Project – https://opendata.go.ke/facet/counties, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20056244

This research highlights the importance of not only identifying economically viable crop alternatives but also crops that have a well-structured market comparable to tobacco. The decision to grow tobacco appears to be conditioned not simply by perceived profitability but by the attractiveness of knowing that leaf will be sold due to the structure of the market system and the lack of similar markets for other agricultural commodities. A major lesson for governments in terms of promoting alternative crops to tobacco is to develop and continue to invest in comparable dynamic markets for other agricultural goods.

The heterogeneity across districts of the reasons why farmers grow tobacco suggests that a successful and sustainable one-size-fits all alternative livelihoods intervention is unlikely to succeed. Rather, while considering the similarities highlighted here, there is also a need to address some of the unique features of each district to increase successful uptake of alternative livelihood initiatives.

By Adriana Appau & Jeff Drope