"Very brave individuals speaking out against very powerful companies." - Tobacco Slave

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More than 100 people attended the launch of our new documentary Tobacco Slave at the M-Shed in Bristol.

The 30-minute documentary explores the neo-colonial links between tobacco farming and tobacco multinationals. It features interviews with farmers in Malawi, Kenyan tobacco experts and historians and community representatives from Bristol.

Cllr Asher Craig, Deputy Mayor of Bristol and Cabinet member with responsibility for Children's Services, Education and Equalities, kicked off the screening by explaining that she found the film triggering but really important. In Asher’s words:

"The film tells the story of tobacco farmers who have become entangled in a cycle of debt and poverty and you will hear in their own words what growing tobacco in the 21st century is really like. You will also hear from local experts and historians who delve into the colonial past and indeed present of tobacco slavery. You will also hear how tobacco still has a huge presence in Bristol.”

After the screening Asher invited the expert panel of speakers to the stage:

  • Professor Roy Maconachie who made the film along with his colleague Simon Wharf;
  • Dr Lonjezo Masikini, an expert in tobacco production and farming practices in Malawi who supported with setting up the interviews and translation; and
  • Jendayi Serwah, a community activist and campaigner for Afrikan reparations.

In their discussion, the panellists covered diverse topics including the impact tobacco has on Bristol as a city and how to challenge the narrative that tobacco production benefits farmers in Malawi. They also praised the farmers who are interviewed in the film for their courage and discussed the importance of their contributions.

"I see them as very brave individuals who are speaking out against very powerful companies." - Roy

The conversation then moved towards areas in which the film could go further such as in its representation of how the farmers are working together in resistance.

"We need to be conscious of these things when we are projecting and telling stories and to make sure that we center the people and allow them to speak for themselves, not just on their victimhood, but on what they are doing to resist that system." - Jendayi

Our panellists also discussed similarities between tobacco farming and other exploitative industries and the obstacles that often stand in the way of improving the situation, including the power of industry to influence governments.

"And we can see the same story, as you said, being replicated over and over, whether you're talking about cocoa, gold, diamonds." - Roy


"What holds up the global north economically is the raping and pillage and extraction and exploitation of the Global South." - Jendayi

The debate then moved on to the diversification of crops and how the tobacco industry stands in the way of enabling farmers to transition away from growing tobacco to growing alternative crops that could provide them with a better lifestyle.

"All these farmers are forced to have maize seed, they are forced to have groundnuts, they are forced to have soya seeds so that when you and I are talking about diversification, the industry will tell you that we are also promoting diversification. But they only provide a market for tobacco. They don't buy these crops. This is how clever they are." - Lonjezo

Within the room, the audience were very engaged in the conversation and the floor was opened for a Q&A session.

The first question to be asked inspired a conversation between the panellists on the economic, political, psychological and cultural factors that keep generations of people trapped in a cycle of exploitation and how to break this cycle.

“It becomes part of tradition. It becomes part of generations of dependency. And the alternatives are not being encouraged because it's not serving bigger interests. We need to enable people to exercise their own agency, their rights to self-determination in terms of how they know best.” – Jendayi

The second question raised was on whether a decreased demand for tobacco globally would make a difference to the situation for tobacco growers in Malawi.

Tobacco production in Malawi is generally determined by the practices of the tobacco companies. They are the ones that will decide how much they want and how much they don't want.” – Lonjezo

An audience member asked how farmers can be encouraged to move towards growing crops which would specifically help to improve food security within their local communities. The panellists expressed that tobacco growers are manipulated into continuing to grow tobacco under the false belief that it will provide economic security and lead to a better life.

“This is a pattern we've seen since colonial times - African countries have been encouraged to be raw producers, to produce things that are not consumed in country and then sent elsewhere where profits are made.” – Roy


“I think in most African countries, a reliable market is the market that buys from you year in, year out, every year, every year for 10 years, 20 years or 30 years or whatever period. So to the farmers, the reliable market is tobacco, not because it gives them a lot of money, but because they know it will keep buying tobacco.” - Lonjezo

Discussions then moved on to the topic of resistance. Examples of resistance to the ongoing ‘moral corruption’ evident within the practices of the tobacco industry included the legal case currently being brought by Malawian tobacco farmers against the tobacco industry. The panellists also discussed what resistance might look like on a local level within Bristol.

“How are we going to break the back of this industry? It's going to be a long fight. But I think collectively, all of us here in this room, if you feel the way I’ve felt, then let’s work collectively together.” - Asher

It was brilliant to get so many people together in a room talking about the issues raised in Tobacco Slave and to see how many people were affected by the film. We already have further film screenings planned across the globe. We are keen that the film is shared as widely as possible and that the conversation is continued.

If you are interested in hosting a screening of the film, please do fill out this form and we will get back to you.


Images by Jon Rowley Photography

Posted in: Events

Watch Tobacco Slave