When Francis Babu decided to quit tobacco farming 15 years ago, he had no idea how he’d support his young family; but he was too sickly to continue farming the crop. He turned to growing maize and beans, and despite persistent meagre yield, Francis was determined to never return to planting tobacco.
“I was always sick when I grew tobacco, yet it’s earnings were not that much,” he says.
Last year, Francis was among farmers in Migori County, western Kenya, who benefitted from the ‘Tobacco-Free Farms Project’ initiated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to help growers quit health-hazardous tobacco farming.
According to Rüdiger Krech, head of health promotion at WHO, a day’s work in a tobacco farm leaves as much nicotine in the labourer’s body as someone who’s consumed 50 cigarettes.
“That’s bad for everyone, but it is extremely bad for the 1.3 million children that still work in tobacco fields globally,” he said.
The WHO project gave farmers high-iron bean seeds and fertilisers to plant and provided them with a ready market through the Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA) in partnership with the World Food Programme and the Food and Agriculture Organisation.
The programme benefitted about 2,000 smallholder farmers, who have now completely transitioned from tobacco farming.
So far, the farmers have harvested 196 metric tonnes of the beans – which the locals call 'Nyota' (star) – and which have been sold through FtMA, earning the farmers cumulatively about Ksh13.4 million ($96,750).
The project has now expanded beyond Migori County – Kenya’s largest tobacco-producing area – to Meru, Busia and Bungoma counties, which are also leading tobacco producers.
Kenya’s Health Cabinet Secretary Susan Nakhumicha said the project not only improves the health of farmers and citizens, but also builds the country’s food security and reduces the carbon footprint.
“Investing in food production [instead of tobacco farming] can promote sustainable agricultural practices, preserve our ecosystem, and ensure food security and good nutrition for our growing population,” she told a gathering at the celebration of World No-Tobacco Day in Migori last Wednesday.
Tobacco cultivation causes loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and degradation, water pollution and nicotine are passed on the soil onto medicinal plants and aromatic and perfumed herbs.
However, ridding farms of tobacco will be no mean feat. According to Migori Governor Ochillo Ayacko, there are more than 15,000 farmers in the country who depend solely on tobacco, meaning that only a small fraction of them have so far transitioned.
The EastAfrican has found that while many farmers are willing to transition, they are sceptical of returns from available alternatives. They are also held back by benefits they receive from tobacco brokers.
Joash Odhiambo, who has been growing tobacco for 10 years says he doesn’t like doing it but it earns him a living and pays his children’s school fees.
“We get free seeds and fertilisers from the company and if you have an urgent problem, they can loan you and deduct from your tobacco yields later. If I can get this anywhere else, I would stop growing tobacco right away,” he told The EastAfrican.
But the seeds, fertilisers and other inputs they receive from the tobacco buyers aren’t free; their cost is deducted from the farmer’s earnings.
Dr Krech argues that these perks are a ploy by the tobacco industry to keep farmers in a “vicious cycle of dependency”.
“The tobacco industry dictates the price at which they buy the produce from the farmers, leaving the farmers with a very minimal financial ground and some with a lot of debt,” Dr Krech told The EastAfrican.
“The industry uses this dependency trap because a lot of farmers would rather yesterday move out of tobacco, because it’s poisonous to them and they know it and feel it. We had to give the farmers interest-free loans to pay back what they owed to tobacco companies to get them out of the tobacco contracts.”
In Migori currently, only BAT, through contracted middlemen, is buying tobacco from farmers after its largest rivals – Mastermind Tobacco and Alliance One – exited the market.
“Tobacco growing is extremely tedious, requires so much labour and money, and the returns are no longer as much,” lamented Job Onyango, also a tobacco farmer in Migori.
“We just do it because of poverty, otherwise we would plant anything else.”
Onyango says back when there were three tobacco companies in the region, his half-acre farm would earn him up to Ksh300,000 ($2,190) per harvest, but now he is lucky to get anything past KSh70,000 ($511).
The farmers still are reluctant to transition to beans as they are unsure the market provided by FtMA will last for long and whether they can earn enough from the nyota beans to sustain their families.
“If we all start growing nyota, won’t there be too much for the FtMA to buy? Won’t it distort prices too much for us all to make any meaningful profits,” poses Odhiambo.
Besides, the project now no longer gives free seeds and fertiliser, only provides advice and education to farmers. A source at WHO said this is to ensure the project is “sustainable in the long run.”
No market guarantees
Dr Krech told The EastAfrican that while he understands the farmers’ concerns, he cannot guarantee continued market provided by FtMA or WHO support.
“We don’t know this, but we need to use the time that we have now, because at the moment we do have this high food insecurity in Kenya and there’s a lot of demand for food,” he said.
Political leaders in Migori, many of who claim they were themselves brought up and educated through proceeds of tobacco farming, have demanded that a good plan for providing alternative crops be in place before transitioning.
“Our people are ready to transition, but the challenge is that the closest alternative we have, which is sugarcane growing, is also fading,” said Dr Ayacko.
He asked the State to revive the South Nyanza (Sony) Sugar Company.
William Maina, head of tobacco control at WHO Kenya, said the project has put Kenya in a global limelight on tobacco control, and several other governments, including Zambia and Uganda, have approached the organisation to have similar programmes in their countries.
“Kenya is the first country in the world to implement this kind of initiative, and the rest of the world is looking at Kenya to see if it will be successful here so they can also march on their own transitions,” he said.
“Kenya in general, and Migori County in particular, are showing to the world that a change is possible, and that it is improving the livelihoods of farmers, giving them a better income, with less labour,” said Adriana Blanco, the head of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) Secretariat.
Mark Nyamita, Member of the National Assembly for Uriri, the county’s largest tobacco producing constituency, said besides sugarcane, the State and development partners can support the transition into other alternatives by providing the farmers with free seeds and fertilisers.
“Most of our people rely on tobacco farming; it is a commercial crop that our people hold so dear, but as we transition, can we also find a way to support these farmers so their children can continue to go to school?” Nyamita said.