As tobacco runs out, Malawi turns to cannabis

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Nambuma (Malawi) (AFP) – Under the scorching sun at a trading post in Malawi, Chikumbutso Chekeni and his wife head to their tobacco sheds to dry their freshly harvested leaf.

Nambuma, 35 kilometers (20 miles) northwest of the capital Lilongwe, was once a thriving agricultural town, backed by vast tobacco-growing enterprises.

Today, even during harvest season, the city is sleepy, leading some farmers to think about switching from tobacco to the newly legalized marijuana.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world but a major tobacco producer, ranking first in the world for burley and seventh for overall production.

No other economy is more dependent on the leaf. Government statistics indicate that more than 70% of the country’s export revenue comes from tobacco.

“The main challenge we face as farmers is the problem of low prices, which is really killing us,” said Chekeni, who has been growing tobacco for 22 years.

Revenues from tobacco, dubbed “Malawi’s green gold”, have declined over the past decade due to falling global demand driven by anti-tobacco campaigns.

Despite the low prices, he sees no other choice but to continue farming. It’s the only job he knows.

This year has been particularly bad. Low volumes and low prices at auction houses in Lilongwe forced the Tobacco Commission to reduce trading to three days a week.

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world but a major tobacco producer Amos GumuliraAFP

Even during these three days, the sales last only one hour.

“The future for tobacco farming is bleak,” said grower Yona Mkandawire. “We should now have a lot of tobacco in the warehouses and more trucks at the receiving dock, but there is a lot of empty space here.”

Despite a sharp decline in tobacco revenue over the years, the Malawian government still calls it a “strategic crop” and champions the country’s continued investment in its production.

Last year, tobacco brought in Malawi $173.5 million, down 27% from the previous year, the Tobacco Commission said.

‘Malawi Gold’

Tobacco Commission chief executive Joseph Chidanti Malunga told AFP that this year’s harvest will be 50 million kilograms less than what buyers are looking for.

But he insisted that Malawi needs tobacco as it is the only crop that earns foreign currency.

“We can’t give up on this no matter how,” he said. “All we’re doing now is making sure we’re producing tobacco the way customers want it.”

In the first week of sales, prices were down more than 20% from a year ago, according to local media.

The drop in prices has seen some farmers try new crops, including recently legalized cannabis.

Malawi legalized the cultivation of cannabis for medical and industrial purposes in February 2020.

Falice Nkhoma, part of the Tilitonse cooperative for cannabis growers, quit tobacco due to falling prices.

Government statistics indicate that more than 70% of Malawi's export earnings come from tobacco
Government statistics indicate that more than 70% of Malawi’s export earnings come from tobacco Amos GumuliraAFP

“I have been growing Burley tobacco since 2014…but with very little benefit as prices were always low,” Nkhoma said. It has little to show for producing the so-called green gold.

“So this year, when I heard that some people would grow cannabis, I was really excited. I bought the seeds and hope that growing cannabis will bring me good yields,” he said. she declared.

It is time for Malawi to diversify its economy, said Betchani Tchereni, professor of economics at the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences.

“We just need to get the economy going again. If it’s soy, then let’s do soy. If it’s cannabis, then let’s focus on cannabis,” he said.

But cultivation licenses could be prohibitive for some aspiring farmers.

The growers, who operate in groups of about 30, must pay an average of $10,000 per group in agricultural license fees.

Easing the process of obtaining cannabis licenses would give farmers an immediate boost.

“It takes about three months to mature, then boom, we have forex,” Tchereni said.

“The licenses can’t be that expensive.”

Falice Nkhoma, part of the Tilitonse cooperative for cannabis growers, hopes growing cannabis will bring
Falice Nkhoma, part of the Tilitonse cooperative for cannabis growers, hopes growing cannabis will bring ‘good returns’ Amos GumuliraAFP

Cannabis cultivation is not new to Malawi, but has yet to develop on an industrial scale.

According to a 2011 World Bank report, Malawi hemp, known locally as ‘chamba’ or ‘Malawi Gold’, is among the ‘best and finest’ sativas in the world.

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