This past season, Henry Tambula saw his farm narrowly avoid financial ruin.
“I’ve grown tobacco for 25 years,” he said on the property he manages in Zomba District, Malawi. “And what happened this year has never happened in Malawi -It has forced us not to grow tobacco this season so we have stopped. We will never go back to tobacco.”
Strong words for a farm manager in a country that once relied on “green gold”, as the locals fondly call it, for as much as 70 percent of its exports and 15 percent of GDP. But in renouncing the crop, Tambula is in good company.
For 2011, Malawi’s tobacco earnings are down 57 percent from what they were the previous year. After five consecutive seasons of declining returns on tobacco, a combination of the global recession, oversaturated markets, and increasingly-popular anti-tobacco campaigns is forcing Malawian farmers to look to other crops.
According to Prince Kapondamgaga, executive director for the Farmers Union of Malawi, this is not bad news. “Diversification is long overdue,” he said.
A group of Canadian’s working in Malawi agrees. Canadian Physicians for Aid Relief’s Putting Farmers First program has long supported food security in Sub-Saharan Africa. In an email sent from Toronto, Kevin O’Niell, a program officer with the group, wrote that CPAR builds on the strengths of small-scale farming communities by promoting conservation agriculture principles such as crop diversifcation.
“Crop diversification is one of a series of sustainable farming techniques at the core of CPAR’s approach that improve crop production and expand opportunities for farmers to lead competitive agricultural production efforts,” he explained. “By moving away from mono-cropping (planting only one staple crop such as maize), small-scale farmers lessen their dependency on the success of that crop.”
What’s more, he continued, this strategy also helps to improve the nutritional content of families’ household diets. As arable land previously used to grow maize and tobacco –the two most-common crops in Malawi– is cleared of those plants, more room is made available for healthier fruits and vegetables.
O’Niell maintained that for CPAR, these issues are very-much a matter of human rights.
“People’s right to food is driven by the notion that food should be accessible to all (sustained year-round access to a stable supply of food), available to all (a sufficient supply), adequate for all (nutritionally adequate and from a sustainable food system), and acceptable to all (culturally appropriate and respectful of traditions),” he wrote. “Our work with small-scale farmers is based around these principles.”
[caption id=”attachment_5516″ align=”aligncenter” width=”675″ caption=”Not tobacco: In a country that once relied heavily on so-called "green gold", farmers are increasingly focusing on other crops, such as c