Migori farmers grapple with poverty after tobacco firm exit

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It is now five years since Alliance One Tobacco closed shop in Migori.

Locals say since then, it has been a long period of untold misery and farmers’ hope of a comfortable life has gone up in smoke.

Residents had for decades relied on the crop used to make cigarettes for a living. What is now left of the giant industry are abandoned tobacco sheds and barns, which were used in curing the leaves.

“The exit of the giant company made us feel like widows or orphans. It has been bad and all we do now is sell our pieces of ancestral land, as the only way of economic survival,” says Mr Patrick Monanka, a former tobacco grower.

He says he grew up amid tobacco fields and when the venture suddenly came to an end, life became difficult for them.

“Youths have turned into criminals while some drink illegal brews all day long. Cattle rustling is the order of the day here. People steal even chicken, something that was unheard of when we grew tobacco,” said Mr Monanka.

Mr Augustine Mwita, former Kenya Tobacco Farmer’s Association chairman, says most Migori residents were tobacco farmers, but fortunes in the sector have continued to dwindle by the day, due to local and global factors.

Migori was the biggest tobacco producer in Kenya, accounting for more than 70 per cent of the yields produced in the country. But today, the county has nothing to show for that feat.

The industry was collectively paying out more than Sh1.7 billion annually to farmers in the region. Alliance One Tobacco, which was the biggest leaf merchant, was spending Sh1.2 billion on Migori farmers annually.

“But now poverty is evident everywhere tobacco was being grown, stretching from Kuria East to Kuria West, Suna West, Uriri and Rongo sub-counties,” says Mr Mwita.

Speaking on his farm in Nyamataburo village in Kuria West where he now plants maize, he says life has never been the same again for locals.

“The once flourishing cash crop is dead, makeshift mabati buying sheds, which were constructed by tobacco multinationals, have been vandalised while the remaining have been taken over by farmers’ co-operative societies,” he says.

While some farmers have quit tobacco farming altogether, others are still hanging on, hoping for a miracle someday.

Early last year, the Kenyan courts adopted anti-tobacco measures after a case that was challenging new laws governing the manufacture, sale and advertising of tobacco products was dismissed, allowing the rules to take effect immediately.

This is one of the challenges that makes it difficult for investors in the sector to operate.

British American Tobacco Kenya Limited (BAT) and Mastermind Tobacco are still operating, though on small-scale.

Their presence is almost negligible.

Most growers in this region had been planting tobacco since the 1960s. The other cash crop in Migori is sugar cane, which is also struggling to survive.

Mr Daniel Mwita says the government should introduce another cash crop to them or better still return tobacco.

“We are ready to venture into other crops, which the government may recommend and assist. Our greatest job would be to resume tobacco farming which is possible through a new company,” said Mr Mwita.

The farmers say the government has partly contributed to investor apathy by introducing difficult conditions related to health issues. “But, you see, we have now become old men despite farming and processing tobacco all our lives.

“Why have we not died of tobacco effects if indeed the crop was hazardous as claimed by the Ministry of Health?” wondered Mr Mwita.

“We are asking both the county and national governments to look for a new investor who can buy all our cash crops.”

Alliance One Tobacco (Kenya) Limited is a subsidiary of Alliance One International, with its corporate head office in Morrisville, North Carolina, US.

Alliance One International’s first purchases of Kenyan tobacco were in 1983. The company has had a legal presence in the country since 1990.

Its core operations involve contracting farmers to produce tobacco mainly in Migori, processing and exporting the produce to international markets. Alliance One Tobacco moved to Uganda and Zimbabwe a few years ago, citing myriad challenges in Kenya.

Alliance One International has attributed the need to scale down its Kenyan operations to a substantial shift in the global supply and demand of Flue-Cured Virginia tobacco.

With the prevailing slump in the tobacco market, Alliance One International has now embarked on a strategic process to align and reposition its operations.

Recently, a three-judge bench of the Court of Appeal declined to grant orders sought by cigarette manufacturer BAT.

BAT was appealing a High Court decision upholding the adoption of health warnings contained in the 2014 Tobacco Control Regulations.

The tobacco control law prohibits virtually all forms of advertising and promotion of tobacco products.

There are restrictions on tobacco sponsorship and the publicity of such sponsorship.

On packaging and labelling, text-only health warnings must cover 30 per cent of the front and 50 per cent of the back of the package and must be displayed in English and Kiswahili.

Misleading packaging and labelling, which could include terms such as “light” and “low tar” and other signs, is prohibited.

World Health Organisation (WHO) has been pushing for the protection of people from tobacco products.

The global health agency has been campaigning against smoking, publicising images across the world on the dangers of smoking and forcing governments to pass laws that require smoking zones, and image warnings on cigarette packs. This has greatly affected the industry.

“Other measures include monitoring tobacco use and the impact of prevention policies, protecting people from tobacco smoke by introducing smoke-free public and workplaces,” says the WHO.

The organisation also wants policies to help people quit tobacco use, increasing warning about the dangers of tobacco use — including graphic health warnings and plain packaging — as well as enforcing bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship and raising excise taxes on tobacco.

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