Tobacco farmers dreams turn to tears and ashes

Tobias Odhiambo drying tobbaco in Mikei, Migori County. PHOTO/STEPHEN MUDIARI

Tobacco farming was introduced in Migori to help fight poverty by putting money in the pockets of farmers.

But today, this cash crop has left many of its growers worse off economically.

Disappointed farmers in Migori, Rongo, Kuria West and Kuria East districts have in recent times boycotted leaf deliveries in a bid to push for better pay.

The growers deliver their produce to BAT Kenya, Mastermind and Alliance One to prepare for a showdown.

Alliance One is a tobacco merchant, exporting leaf to Europe and other parts of the world, while Mastermind and BAT Kenya make cigarettes locally.

The problem is that many farmers have put most of their land under the cash crop. As a result, they depend on the money earned from the crop to buy food and take care of their other expenses.

The farmers recently met and resolved to stop leaf delivery until they get better pay. Their leaders, Mr John Magaiwa, Mr Charles Nyangi and Mr Gesamba Mwita, said they will not relent until their plight is addressed.

In response, the companies increased the cost of the highest leaf grade to Sh103 a kilo, but the growers said they wanted at least Sh200. The poorest grade fetches below Sh20.

There are more than 20,000 farmers in the region. “We have been exploited for a long time and this time we are saying no,” said Mr Mwita.

Another grower, Mr Moses Mosabi, added : “Even though we need money to take our children to school, we are ready to keep our crop to give to other well-paying buyers.”

Migori MP John Pesa supported their demands saying they were genuine. “These people have been trapped in abject poverty for a long time yet the firms post big profits. They must be listened to,” he said.

But Alliance One staff accused politicians of inciting the farmers, saying the prices were being dictated by supply and demand in the world market. Mastermind employees in the area expressed similar sentiments.

“Some leaders want to win their sympathy by whipping unnecessary emotions. We believe sobriety will prevail,” said one company official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to talk to the media.

The companies are also feuding among themselves over poaching of tobacco. Middlemen also descended on the county, buying leaf from farmers at a throw away price and later selling it to the multi-nationals at exorbitant costs.

“They target the poor farmers who are looking for quick cash to pay fees and buy food,’’ said one farmer, Mr Samuel Kerioba, a former civic leader.

Alliance One Tobacco leaf director Patrick Kimani has protested at the move by middlemen, saying it stood to lose millions of shillings it gave out to farmers in loans for land development.

He asked for the intervention of the Provincial Administration to stop the menace.


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