By Miria Sidney
Seventy-four-year-old Gadi Giro has grown tobacco for most of his life. However, he still sleeps in the same grass-thatched four-room mud and wattle hut he built decades ago at Alai village in Katrini sub-county. His home is located about 10km north of Arua town.
Giro started growing tobacco with about an acre of the crop in 1960, when the British American Tobacco (BAT) company was the monopoly player in West Nile. Leaf Tobacco & Commodities and Continental Tobacco Uganda, among others, have since entered this lucrative market.
Ideally, tobacco companies sponsor farmers to grow the crop, through provision of inputs on credit, extension services and buying the crop at the end of the season.
Today, the areas renowned for tobacco growing in Arua are Katrini, Bileafe, Omugo, Aiivu, Oriama and Rigbo sub counties in Terego County; Aroi, Dadamu, Oluko, Adumi and Manibe sub counties in Ayivu; Logiri, Arivu, Ogoko, Ajia and Ocoko sub counties in Vurra County.
For his five-decade effort, however, all Giro can boast of is a small semi-permanent commercial building in the nearby trading centre. Giro is, however, proud of his son, who has a diploma in education. Thanks to that son’s steady income as a secondary school teacher, he has managed to build the first semi-permanent residential iron sheet structure on Giro’s expansive homestead.
Previously, the only tin-roof structure on Giro’s compound was a tobacco curing barn. Giro is just one of many farmers in Katrini sub-county, who have known no other cash crop other than tobacco. Their fortunes are intimately linked with tobacco yields, year-in and year-out.
“We planted three acres of tobacco with one of my sons this year. Unfortunately, some of it was destroyed because we did not use pesticides. I could not afford pesticides because I used the money I had to pay last year’s school fees for my children. Besides, my children also cautioned me against incurring too many debts,” Giro says.
Despite his persistence, by early last year, Giro lost about two acres of tobacco to the long drought spell and pests. He was lucky to get a fairly good harvest from the other acre because it was planted in a wetland.
Small-scale farmers like Giro across West Nile, grow the delicate yet labour-intensive crop on fragmented pieces of land. The high-value tobacco requires a farmer’s attention right from the time of seedbed preparation through to planting, weeding, harvesting and curing. In total, the process takes no less than six months of hard labour.
Since all their time is consumed by tobacco, most of these farmers rarely grow food crops or other cash crops, thus predisposing their families to hunger. In a bid to avert hunger, which was becoming rather rampant in tobacco growing areas, Arua district council in 2010 passed a by-law, which demands that they devote at least 5% of their land to food crop production.
“In Alai village only, eight of us planted tobacco this year. The rest seem to have got alternative sources of income and some say they suffered a lot during the last season, but I will not stop growing tobacco,” Giro says as he rolls up a cigarette of unprocessed tobacco.
In addition, to cut costs, Giro and others like him use family labour, which is considered cheap because they do not factor it as a cost when they get paid.
Education officials in Arua say children from such families tend to skip school during tobacco peak seasons.
Interestingly, across the valley from Giro’s home in Offaka village, there is another farmer, Simon Draji, 42. Although, he doubles as a teacher at Otravu Secondary School, he once set his sights on tobacco.
“After I graduated from National Teachers’ College Muni in 1992, I embarked on growing tobacco in order to supplement my income. I grew tobacco for three years, but gave up after I realised that my profits dwindled every year.
“At first I planted an acre of tobacco and got sh1m. The next year I planted two acres and got sh800,000. The following year I increased the acreage to two-and-a-half and earned sh550,000,” Draji says.
That marked a turning point in his farming career. “I also noticed that tobacco required virgin land or land that had been left to fallow for a while in order to do well. The gardens where I had grown tobacco eventually lost their fertility. The inputs for tobacco were also very expensive.
“A sack of NPK fertilizer would cost me sh150,000 and a can of super grower cost sh20,000 and yet I still had to buy wood fuel and twines,” Draji says.
In the fourth year, Draji switched to growing cassava, groundnuts, beans, simsim, onions and rice. In 2011, he harvested 1013kg of rice, which he sold at sh3,000 per kilo, meaning he pocketed over sh3m in just about six months.
“From my garden of onions, I harvested five sacks, which fetched me sh1m.Can you imagine on the rice field, I used one litre of super grower, which cost sh20,000; ½ litre of ustaad insecticide, which cost sh7,000 and the seeds cost me sh60,000,” he says.
According to Draji, the tobacco companies are swift when recovering money for the inputs given on credit.
“These inputs are given on credit, but at a higher rate than the market price. In case of default, due to crop failure or other factors some of these companies come with policemen to arrest the farmer. I was lucky I was never arrested, but I know of people who were jailed for defaulting on loan repayments,” he says.
Ever since he quit growing tobacco, Draji says his new source of income has enabled him set up a two-bedroom permanent house.
“I no longer have to worry about delayed payments by a distant company,” he says with a grin of satisfaction.
Back to Alai village, there is an impressive pile of firewood near Giro’s latest grass-thatched tobacco curing barn.
“Some of this was leftover from last season. I am not having problems with firewood this year because I felled a tree down in the valley to boost my firewood supply,” Giro says.
Giro seems to speak for many a tobacco farmer with wood fuel needs. The search for wood fuel has endangered several indigenous species including the shear nut tree.
“The shear nut tree is a threatened species in the region because farmers have been cutting them for tobacco curing. The most affected areas are Madi Okollo, Ajia and parts of Terego County.
In 2010, Arua district council came up with an ordinance to prevent the cutting down of shear nut trees.
“We have lost about half of our population of shear nut trees,” the Arua district forest officer, Edison Adiribo, says.
According to Adiribo, sub-counties like Adumi, Vurra, Manibe, Oluko, Katrini and Omugo where there has been intensive tobacco growing do not have natural forest cover.
Wandi, a trading centre in the tobacco growing community in Arua, lacks basic infrastructure and the buildings are in a poor state
“For a kilo of tobacco cured, you need about four to five kilos of wood fuel. As a result, much of the tree cover in the district has gone because of tobacco curing. Since tobacco is labour-intensive, it keeps farmers occupied throughout the year. They do not have time to plant or look after the trees.
“The district forced the tobacco companies to invest in plantations. They now have about 1,500 hectares of trees spread out in the area from Yumbe to Logiri,” Adiribo says.
To address the demand, tobacco companies have taken to planting fast-maturing eucalyptus trees, which are notorious for siphoning large volumes of water.
Tobacco companies respond
While the other tobacco companies are silent, Solomon Muyita, BAT’s corporate and regulatory affairs coordinator, points out that the 1,500 hectares of eucalyptus BAT has planted in West Nile are in gazetted forest reserves.
However, where farmers have undertaken eucalyptus tree-planting projects on their fragmented pieces of land to meet their own wood fuel needs, it is evident that areas near these wood lots have been rendered unfit for farming.
“Tobacco growing is destructive to the environment. About 98% of these farmers depend on natural trees to cure tobacco. This has affected the weather patterns in the area. It has led to long spells of drought and affected the performance of the crop. Nowadays, you find tobacco maturing at a height of 30cm (the height for mature tobacco is three to six-foot tall),” the Arua district agriculture officer, Getrude Badaru, says.
Badaru also admits that the unpredictable weather pattern is turning farmers away from tobacco growing.
She concurs that tobacco requires a lot of time and labour, which has discouraged many farmers, adding that fertilisers and pesticides are expensive, yet without them tobacco cannot grow well.
Muyita partly attributes the farmer attrition to BAT’s strategic realignment.
“Previously, we used to sponsor 30,000 farmers in the region. We stopped contracting farmers with less than one acre. We now have 7,000 farmers. We are targeting sustainable farmers. Someone who has over an acre can make a net profit of sh2m,” Muyita says.
Loss of soil fertility
Adiribo’s assertion that soils in tobacco growing areas have lost their fertility, partly because of tobacco high uptake of phosphorous, is echoed by Emmanuel Odama, a soil fertility scientist at Abi Zonal Agricultural Research and Development Institute in Arua.
Commenting on the findings of a technical survey the institute conducted in 2008 on the fertility status of West Nile soils, Odama says there is a direct correlation between growing tobacco and loss of soil fertility across the region.
“In the study, crop nutrients like nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous were below critical levels in the tobacco growing areas. Consequently, most tobacco companies furnish farmers with lots of fertilisers, which often results into fertiliser abuse. Every time you apply fertilisers in the soil, there is a residual effect, which creates an acidic soil environment over time,” Odama says.
Muyita says besides setting up the $25m (about sh66.25b) modern tobacco buying centre at Pajulu in Ayivu County in 2006 and another one in Hoima, BAT has invested in a range of corporate social responsibility activities. One such project is the scholarship scheme which has benefited at least 600 farmers’ children since its inception.
In 2011, BAT paid sh72.4b in taxes to the Government, making it one of the top 10 taxpayers in the country, but this national success is not reflected in the fortunes of several families that have grown tobacco in Katrini sub-county for many decades.
Perhaps,Wandi trading centre is what best symbolises the plight of these families. The infrastructure in this trading centre, which is synonymous with the tobacco buying season, has remained very basic with no sign of growth. Just like Giro, there is nothing to show for the billions of shilling worth of tobacco shipped out of this town annually.
Draji’s home. He quit tobacco growing after three years of no profit
“If you look at key development indicators, you will find that most of these farmers fall short, despite engaging in the seemingly lucrative tobacco farming. Their returns simply do not match their investment,” Odama says.
As the sun goes down in a treeless horizon in Wandi, one cannot help but wonder; where, did the tobacco farmers go did wrong or is it just the curse of tobacco?
This story was done in collaboration with Makerere University post-graduate programme in investigative journalism.
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Tobacco growing has kept Giro poor for 50 years