Why Smoking is good for Africa

There is a story in the national paper that suggests ”alternative marketable crops” ought to replace tobacco; Tanzania is one of Africa’s biggest tobacco growing regions now. It generates millions of dollars in foreign exchange. It provides an income for thousands; we are engaged with 55,000 farmers, each supporting families and their income contributes hugely to the local economy: during the tobacco sales the population of the Outpost swells threefold because everybody’s got money to spend. And the Outpost represents only a tiny percentage of the growing region.

The story, prompted by the view of a holier than thou NGO – naturally, describes how local tobacco farmers – peasant farmers in the case of Tanzania, not commercial farmers – need to be mindful of environmental and personal health. Tobacco growing – says the journalist – can be harmful to the farmers’ health. Yes, it can be. If he isn’t vigilent about protection during insecticide application (as every farmer must be, regardless of crop) or if he handles the tobacco whilst wet (something which he would not be likely to do since harvesting occurs during the dry season).

The NGO who argues that tobacco growers must seek alternative cash crops needs to get out more (I think that’s what the shiny 4×4 is for love?) and learn something about tobacco first.

1. tobacco grows in marginal land – hot, dry, sandy areas – which would not, for example, despite what NGO suggests, be suitable for the growing of export vegetables which are thirsty and fussy and like rich soils in temperate climes, indeed such country battles to support local crops like maize;

2. tobacco growing, despite what the NGO says, is not solely responsible for the devastation of forests. No – that would largely be the result of unsupported subsistence farming which has not had the benefit of education and exposure to Good Agricultural Practices.

3. tobacco growers’ conditions, because they are growing for large international buyers, are monitored stringently by international growers’ bodies. Did you know, for example, that tobacco farmers uses signifcantly less chemicals than the farmers who plant the mangetout that end up on the shelves of Sainsbury do?

4. tobacco farmers make much more money than the farmers who grow crops advocated by the NGO: export veg sells at about 50cents a kilo, and the export veg market (monopolised by the likes of Tesco) is an ugly, competitive, wasteful business; paprika retails at very much less (in the journalist’s piece a 100kg bag which the poor farmer carted half way across the country to sell went for less than $6 – do the math, it’s not much per kilo). Tobacco farmers can sell their crop at upwards of a dollar a kilo; the price rising in accordance with quality. There is little waste and no obligation on the farmers’ part to move their crop; buyers do that for them. Just as they provide finance to get them going and technical know-how.

I’m going to be shot down in flames now but the reality is hundreds of thousands of people still smoke. It’s a free world; if they choose to despite knowing the risks, why can’t they. And if Africa has the space and manpower and the climate to produce the necessary and make more for peasant farmers than organic vegetables, why can’t she?

It’s unlikely the British government is ever going to promote a grow-local venture in the case of baccy. Besides, Britain doesn’t have the sunshine.

Yes, yes, I know I’m biased.  But the thing is: if the tobacco industry here imploded tomorrow, we – my husband and I – have the wherewithal, the education, the experience to do something else.

The 55,000 tobacco farmers don’t. Despite what silly NGO thinks.


10 Responses to “Why Smoking is good for Africa”

  1. Global Voices Online » Africa: Why smoking is good for Africa Says:

    […] Memsahib explains why smoking is good for Africa: “The NGO who argues that tobacco growers must seek alternative cash crops needs to get out […]

  2. Tom Says:

    You just make way too much sense. Thanks for the education.

  3. Joe Camel Says:

    Everything you say makes sense except your remark about “risk” in smoking.
    Can you offer any legitimate scientific documentation? I think not.

    Also smokers are not hundreds of thousands–worldwide it’s 1.5 billion.

  4. R. Sherman Says:

    Yet another example of how busy body do gooders would rather “burn the village to save it” than admit their policies hurt the people they desperately wish to help.

    An example here is a proposed 50 cent per gallon increase in the gasoline tax to combat global warming. Of course, the poor will bear that increase more proportionately than the rich, plus the increase transportation costs in causes will also be passed on to the end consumer, the brunt of which will, again, be borne by the poor.

    Stupid, stupid people.


  5. Gillian Says:

    Yes, I agree that there’s no value in squeezing the tobacco farmers of Tanzania in an effort to reduce smoking world wide.

    However, I wonder whether there might be some local benefit in measures that discourage locals from taking up smoking? Local taxes on ciggies sold in the country? That might not work cos it could encourage a thriving black market. I doubt whether the TZ govt has any funds for public education re smoking. Maybe that could be a useful job for an NGO. I get the impression, however, that TZ has more pressing priorities, like HIV/AIDS.

    Any thoughts?

  6. bankelele Says:

    There are still millions of smokers left in the world and tobacco companies will be around for years to come. By all means, African farmers should continue to grow tobacco as a cash crop to earn an honest, decent, living.

  7. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thanks Tom!

    Thank you Joe Camel for visiting. 1.5 billion?! The farmers will be encouraged. I bet that’s more people than want to eat organice mangetout.

    I agree, Mr Sherman: Stupid, stupid people, in both scenarios.

    Gillian – cigarettes are cheap here. And if the government spent any of its millions on educating the people, agriculture, family planning and disease preventation would probably be a more meaningful place to start. You’re right: Africa has more pressing problems – and probably far fewer smokers – than the West.

    Thanks bankelele; yup, they need to earn a living much more than they need to join the antismoking rallies.

  8. Arif Says:

    the NGO does sound silly. BUT, there is a risk that the efforts to curb smoking worldwide by public policy that informs people, as ishould responsibly do, will continue to shrink the market of smokers. I myself am planning to quit smoking soon (he said while taking a drag). In this case, as a sensible reactive measure, rather than a silly proactive measure while there is still a good livelihood to be made out of silly people like me who still smoke, would be to have alternatives available to alternative crops if the market changes. unfortunately for the tobacco market, it is still good public policy for the countries where tobacco information is sorely lacking, to improve their efforts. Perhaps there is a baseline level of people who will still smoke despite the best efforts of public health officials, and therefore there will still be a role for tobacco production. I do not think that temperance on smoking should make it illegal, nor should it shift the moral responsibility onto producers. In fact, if public health efforts succeed to the point of the baseline, the market impacts should be mitigated with public support for transition for those producers who need to switch. And, I would rather buy my smokes from a small producer, and without all the industrial chemicals thank you very much, so maybe we can have fair trade organic cigarettes? I also think that coca and poppy should be legalized, diverted to regulated markets where recreational drugs can be legalized and to medicinal markets (for poppy) as well. This policy would end the destruction of environment and livelihood through the violence inherent eradication policies, and evidence suggests it would reduce both the use, morbidity and mortality associated with drug use, by legalizing, regulating and using informed public policy and treatment to reduce usage. Evidence, rather than politics, suggests this is the best economic and public health policy. Stop the pressure on farmers. Afghanistan would be doing far better.

    nice article, provocative, intelligent and makes me feel better about smoking. soon i have to save myself and won’t be contributing to the baccy economy, but i won’t start judging those who continue to smoke, nor those who grow the stuff. if everyone quits, unlikely, i hope we are smart enough to come with good reactive policies to assist the change of crop for the farmers. sometimes proaction is better, sometimes it’s just silly.



  9. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Dear Arif

    Thanks. I absolutely loved your response. Not least because it made me giggle. Enjoy your smokes. Until you give up, of course!

  10. Road Trip; Day 6 and Home « Reluctant Memsahib Says:

    […] The tobacco trucks are on the move. This year more than 5000 of them will haul the produce of 93 000 peasant farmers down this narrow alley to HQ. 103 million kilos. That’s a lot of smokes observes Husband.  I’m not a smoker but I’m still glad about that. […]

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