The Gold in Malawi’s Soils

By Triphonia Julius

Malawi is a small country located in southeast Africa. The country has rich, fertile soils on which many crops do well. The country also harvests tobacco, which is the main source of foreign currency as it is sold in United States dollars. Farmers work hard to cultivate tobacco. The funny thing is that some of the farmers are not respected because they do not take good care of themselves. They do not look smart when they are done with their farming activities. Though some of the farmers are rich, others are poor, according to their behavior and lack of dedication. Therefore, I would not judge the book by its cover, as George Eliot would say. Let me dig into the roots of this interesting story of gold in Malawi soils.

There are two types of crops that farmers cultivate in Malawi: food and commercial crops. Most of the time, all crops are cultivated during the rainy season. Personally, I feel that it is very important to share a story about a Malawian farmer who works hard for the commercial crop, tobacco. I have experience with how the crop is grown. I remember that some time back, I assisted my grandfather in caring for the tobacco field during the school holidays. I tell you, there is too much work that a tobacco farmer does. The tobacco crop needs a lot of care. For instance, when there are weeds in the field, the tobacco crop does not grow perfectly. So the tobacco farmer has to make sure the field is clear all the time. Tobacco farming requires a hard-working farmer because each and every day the farmer has to be on the farm, caring for and monitoring the growth of the tobacco leaves. Most of the time, farmers do not take a bath for days because the farmer is always busy, even at night. Most of the farmers take only one meal a day due to either lack of food or not finding time to eat.

The Malawian farmer does not rest all year. The preparation starts in July, when the farmer has to clear the land and make ridges manually without using machines. This is not a simple job because the farmer uses a lot of energy. During this time, most of the farmers do not have food in their homes. So they go to their respective fields with an empty stomach because they plant a lot of tobacco and have few fields for maize, which is our staple food. They do not harvest enough maize to feed them the whole year; so, by this time, they have finished eating all the maize. Besides, they also share the maize with other people who assist them, as the tobacco crop needs a lot of labor.

Tobacco farmers are required to prepare the nursery beds along the river for the tobacco leaf. They have to water the nursery beds for the tobacco leaves for three months before planting them. When the rains come, they plant tobacco in the field. They make sure that all types of fertilizers are available because they apply the first fertilizer after five days of plantation. If farmers have all the resources they need, they can apply fertilizer four times in a season. If not, they end up harvesting less tobacco of low quality, which cannot attract buyers on the market. The life of a farmer is unpredictable because it depends on how the country receives rainfall. If the country experiences bad rainfall, the tobacco crop dries up. For instance, last year, we only had rain in December, which lasted a few days. We went close to a month without rain. Farmers looked for other small plants from nurseries to plant again. They found poor-quality plants, and the poor crops made it impossible to harvest good-quality tobacco. But if the country receives good rainfall, farmers harvest a lot of tobacco.

Another problem is a lack of markets or buyers. When many farmers harvest a large amount of tobacco, they face high rejection rates as well as low prices. Farmers cry a lot over poor prices and rejection. The rejection happens when the farmers mix the tobacco with different qualities in one bale. Growing up, I knew lots of tobacco farmers who mixed lower-quality tobacco with high-grade tobacco. They mixed the tobacco with heavy materials like stones, black paper, and made the tobacco very wet, hoping to profit. Farmers cover their tobacco with black paper when the rains are falling to avoid the leaves from getting wet. Sometimes the torn-out black paper can be mixed, and there is a need for the farmers to check and remove the paper from the tobacco leaves. Some farmers prefer not to remove the black paper to make the bale heavy. But it’s hard to blame them for trying to survive.

When the leaf is ready to harvest, farmers pluck out the ripe leaves on a daily basis, sew them into four big leaves, and hang them where they can dry. Farmers sew the four leaves together so that they will not stick together; if they can be sewn together in more than four, there is a possibility of stickiness among the leaves. Before this, they have to prepare a shed with a roof made of grass or iron sheets so that the leaves can dry without sunlight. If they dry the tobacco in the sun, the leaf loses its quality brown color. Besides, too much sunlight can also make the leaf break. They also have to prepare the sticks, where they hang the tobacco leaves to dry. When the leaves are dry, they untie them without breaking them. First, they splash water on the leaves and make them soft. After this process, they check the leaves and grade them according to their sizes and qualities. Then, they put the tobacco leaves in a wooden jack to press the leaves and make them into 100-kilogram bales, ready for sale.

In Malawi, we have one company that controls the buying and selling of the tobacco leaves. Their depots are located in different regions of Malawi. Tobacco is sold using the currency of the United States. The banks convert the dollars into Malawian Kwacha at a given rate. Only a few bales can make a Malawian farmer a millionaire. Remember, the farmer earns this much once a year, and farmers think that it is a lot of money to them, forgetting that they have worked a lot and also that they have spent their resources, energy, money, and time. When the farmer withdraws the money, they buy resources for the next rainy season. For example, they buy in advance fertilizers, hoes, and all the resources for the tobacco crop, including the commodities they lack in their lives like clothes and other basic needs. I remember when I was young, my grandfather, who was a tobacco farmer, used to give me money to buy clothes and groceries for his home once a year. And also, he used to buy a big radio each and every year. It’s entertaining to watch the farmers rejoice when they have money in their pockets. They buy a lot of things! Remember! They earn money only once a year.

Other farmers waste their money on prostitutes while leaving their wives at home. I experienced this with one of the closest relatives of my family who went to town to withdraw cash from the bank. He told his wife that he would buy 20 bags of fertilizer on his way back. The wife waited for him that day, but he never came back. The wife did not know what happened because the family had no cellphone that she could have used to communicate with her husband. The husband came back after a week. He came back claiming that the money was lost. But people saw him with prostitutes at a bar, a very bad habit that contributed to many domestic problems, including hunger. However, many farmers prefer marrying many wives. They do that to solve the problem of labor. As I have explained before, tobacco farming requires a lot of labor because there is a lot that happens behind the tobacco leaf. For them, marrying many wives helps them solve labor problems because their children also assist in tobacco production. Before going to and after coming back from school, the children assist their parents in caring for the tobacco in their fields. For instance, my uncle married four wives, all of whom had children before he married them. All the children, together with the children their wives bore him, go to the field first before going to school. They do the same thing after school: they go to their field before eating dinner. This kind of behavior is practiced by many people in my community, which I know because I see them every day when moving around doing errands.

Tobacco farmers also find help from companies like JTI, Limbe Leaf, and many more. They assist tobacco farmers in getting farming inputs. The farmers only provide labor and a few other things that make the tobacco leaf productive. These companies give the farming inputs as a loan, which farmers pay back after the harvest. These companies buy the tobacco leaves at a good price, and the remaining money is for the farmer. Therefore, the farmer pays more than half of his earnings to these companies.

In conclusion, the life of the Malawian farmer is hard because there is a lot behind farming. However, there is also honey behind the biting bee. Although many people flock to town looking for greener pastures, if people in Malawi dedicate themselves to farming and make farming a business, for sure! Malawi would be economically stable because “the gold is in the soils of Malawi.”

3 December, 2022