Tobacco production, livelihood diversification in Malawi… and some UK connections

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James Copestake

On 16 November this year Malawi ratified the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) - see WHO (2023). This is worthy of note given that the main thrust of this global agreement is to “continually and substantially” reduce the prevalence of tobacco consumption on public health grounds (see Article 3), while at the same time tobacco production remains the source of more than half Malawi’s export revenue. Government signatories to the Convention do not have to undertake to ban tobacco cultivation within their jurisdiction, but they do agree to prevent doing so from harming the environment and people’s health (Art.18), to eliminate illicit trade in tobacco (Art.15), and to collaborate in promoting viable alternatives for tobacco workers, growers, and individual sellers (Art.17). What should the 175,000 farmers in Malawi who still grow tobacco infer from this decision to join? Is Malawi joining mainly to be at the table in Convention activities? Or does it suggest more than that?

One explanation for this decision is that tobacco production can be regarded as a ‘sunset industry’. Production has been in decline for the last fifteen years, with falling global demand being an important driver. There is an economic case for governments to encourage rather than resist the decline of a sunset industry, and to accelerate shifts into alternative livelihood activities that can utilize the resources thereby made available. The picture in Malawi is more complex. Tobacco remains a profitable activity for at least some important stakeholders in the industry, who would not be slow to raise output again if demand conditions improved. The decline in production is also uneven across the country. Most small-scale tobacco farmers see very little profit and endure harmful health side-effects from cultivating tobacco. So, why have more not already moved onto other activities?

The first and obvious explanation is that alternative livelihoods are scarce, and often even less profitable and secure. Malawi’s staple crop is maize, and yields are strongly linked to inorganic fertilizer use, despite adverse long-term effects on soil structure and fertility. As farmers prepare fields ahead of this year’s rains they have been hit by a halving in availability of subsidized fertilizer, along with sharp rises in its market price linked to global supply shortages accentuated by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Meanwhile, at the national level, less export revenue from tobacco would exacerbate a prolonged foreign exchange crisis (Malawi had already been forced into an extended credit facility from the IMF), a sharp fall in the value of the Kwacha, and to sharp rises in the cost of living.

Second, Malawi’s tobacco restructuring is not happening uniformly across the country. Historically, most small-scale tobacco farming was in the South, but production there has now fallen behind both Central and Northern Regions. International tobacco buyers and exporters - such as Bristol based Imperial Tobacco - have a strong vested interest in consolidating the industry by directly contracting with larger-scale producers in geographically clustered areas, so as to enable them to control farm practices more closely. These contracts can be highly restrictive - at its worst contract farming can degenerate into a form of modern-day slavery. The risk of this is highest in the most marginal areas of production, where buyers operate more like ‘roving bandits’ - with no long-term interest in their suppliers - than ‘stationary bandits’, with an interest in at least enabling farmers to stay in the business from season to season.

Big losers in this story are poorer, smaller-scale and more isolated farmers living in areas where tobacco production has been declining fastest and furthest, particularly in Southern Region. This is also where rural poverty is most concentrated; poor people include not only marginal or exiting tobacco farmers, but those whose livelihoods benefitted indirectly from local linkages to tobacco production, including loss of local spending power, reduced demand for ganyu (or casual labour - an important but often degrading seasonal survival strategy for the poorest) and reduced income from which to provide social support to neighbors and relatives. Those who were not themselves miners, but who experienced the effect of closure of local coal mines in the Welsh valleys, experienced something similar.

So, what can be done to promote or expand alternative livelihoods, including those in the poorest rural areas of Southern Malawi? There is indeed already a long and complex story of efforts by farmers, government, private investors, and non-government organizations (NGOs) to promote livelihood diversification in these areas.* Possible alternatives to tobacco include soya, groundnut, pulses, pigeon peas, potatoes, macadamia nuts, mangos, livestock, medicinal cannabis even, and of course migration to find work elsewhere – including as far as the UK. The Malawi government is actively promoting ‘mega’ farms as an alternative generator of foreign exchange – e.g. for production of sugar sweeteners from stevia. Farm diversification for smaller farmers can assist with soil recovery through regenerative agricultural practices such as alley cropping with leguminous crops like pigeon peas (also exportable), composting, and increasing production of goats, pigs and other livestock, which also supply farm manure. But there is no magic bullet – raising rural incomes requires sustained effort, particularly in the face of weather shocks exacerbated by climate change, including the unprecedented Cyclone Freddy earlier this year. Farmers need time and capital to recover and to adapt, with appropriate livelihood combinations specific to different local contexts and farmers’ resources.

Government can and is helping to promote local livelihood diversification by improving infrastructure, delivering agricultural support services, as well as coordinating and regulating the activities of commercial investors, financial institutions and NGOs. But all these agencies are constrained by lack of resources and face competing priorities, Over-reliance on external assistance for development (locally referred to as chitukuko) risks aggravating a culture of aid dependence. Details matter, and elaborating on the respective roles, strengths and weaknesses of different agencies is beyond the scope of this blog. However, I do suggest there is a case for acting consistently with two general principles.

First, the case for external support to areas adjusting to localized decline in tobacco production is not based solely on altruistic charity and goodwill - principles of justice and restitution also apply. Malawi’s ‘path-dependent’ addiction to tobacco stretches back to its history as a British colony. By far the biggest beneficiaries of the country’s long involvement with the crop have been international companies, including their UK-based employees and shareholders. So, providing long-term support for livelihood diversification is an avenue for offsetting past injustices. In signing off on the WHO FCTC, the Government of Malawi will be mindful of the damage tobacco consumption is doing to all the health of all those who smoke tobacco, including in Malawi, and to those affected by the adverse health and environmental effects of its production. But I hope it is also reminding the WHO and other international agencies of the case for supporting agricultural restructuring on the grounds of restorative justice.

Second, while it is understandable to do so, livelihood diversification initiatives need not and should not focus solely on past or present tobacco farmers. And they certainly should NOT be left to tobacco companies themselves, given their vested interest in using such activities to greenwash their own insidious involvement in promoting tobacco consumption, even years after its adverse health effects became widely known. Rather, there are strong grounds for promoting livelihood activities collectively across the poorest areas of the country, particularly those where tobacco production was once a mainstay. This approach is consistent with both international solidarity and Africa’s tradition of ubuntu – that ‘I am because we are’.

*For more details see L. Masikini (2023) The political economy of tobacco production and diversification of rural livelihoods in Malawi. PhD thesis, Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath, UK.

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