SEVEN people or so— comprising a mother, children and members of the extended family—look celebratory as they sit around bamboo baskets that are filled with freshly harvested maize.
They sit quietly, while shelling maize, outside the grass-thatched fence that offers a false sense of security to the family’s bamboo-made granary that is filled to the brim. Ironically, a newly-constructed brick house is not surrounded by any grass-thatched fence, yet it is the house, more than anything else, that should be protected with the owner’s last drop of blood.
It is a typical day in Zuwalimo Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nkanda in the Central Region district of Mchinji.
In fact, Zuwalimo is a typical village, a part of Malawi where goats roam freely. Dogs still move in parks, hunting mice with their owners or alone during the day, before coming back home to see the night crack into dawn.
No wonder, then, that there are no noticeable changes to the affairs of Zuwalimo Village this Monday, July 3, 2017. If anything, Village Head Zuwalimo is ready to preside over disputes in the village and, if anything, the villagers are ready to submit to any ruling, and part ways with a chicken or goat— but never a cow!
“Who can part ways with a cow these days? Truthfully, the purpose of settling disputes is not to reap people off; it is to maintain peace,” says Michael Kachilika, a villager.
Whatever the case, there is but one noticeable change in the village. There is a new car, a Toyota half-tonner. The owner, needless to say proud owner, is 35-year-old Jickson Shawa, one of the villagers who have known no other mode of transport than the famous oxcart.
But, the cart is there, but the ox is not.
“I have let them [ox] free. They are grazing,” Shawa says.
He does not need the ox. All he needs is petrol to fill the tank of the vehicle, while the ox is busy filling its own tank [the stomach], and the mobile machine can take him anywhere, save for the sky.
In buying the vehicle, Shawa has surprised not only other villagers but himself, too. He sheds light.
“I have been a tobacco farmer since 1998, with very little, in terms of development projects, to show for it. It is as if, between 1998 and 2016, I have been walking, slowly and on swollen feet, in the wilderness. Surprisingly, people talk of tobacco farming in glowing terms, which is not surprising because tobacco is a cash cow for many people in the village.
But, to say the truth, very few people really reap the fruits of their sweat. For the most part, tobacco farming has been less rewarding, at least in my case. Which is why I cannot believe it that, finally, I have a Toyota [half-tonner] I can call my own. I can drive by myself. I can go wherever I want. In fact, I can do anything. My faith in tobacco has paid off, albeit a bit late,” Shawa says.
Well, the vehicle is his. That is why the words J. Shawa, P/Bag 5, Mchinji, adorn its right side.
It can be said, however, that Shawa is talking in broad terms, without really pointing out what has brought him to a position where he is one of a handful people from Zuwalimo Village to buy a car out of tobacco proceeds.
“Okay, let me put it this way. I bought this car [Toyota half-tonner] in the 2016/17 agricultural season at the cost of K3.5 million. I have bought it barely two years after joining Alliance One’s Integrated Production System (IPS),” Shawa says.
When he joined Tayambanawo club in his area in the 2015/16 agricultural season, joining chairperson Goliati Ganizani and others, the effect was immediate. He harvested 27 bales of flue cured tobacco and, after settling debts, he carted home K2.7 million.
That time, Tayambanawo had three members, villagers who decided to give IPS a try. Today, encouraged by gains made by club members, three more tobacco farmers have joined, taking the number to six.
Taking it from last year ’s success story, Shawa cultivated 24 bales on his one hectare piece of land — in line with his designated quota— which culminated in him registering a profit of K3.8 million.
He used K3.5 million to purchase his vehicle, and invested part of the proceeds in a house construction project he launched last year. He then used the remainder to cater for household needs.
Shawa has five children, two of whom sat for Malawi School Certificate of Education examinations last year and are in need of tuition and other fees. The other three children are still in school [primary and secondary].
However, Shawa has not always had it easy.
He remembers that, in the past, he had problems with almost everything.
“Between 1998 and 2016, I could struggle to purchase farming equipment and inputs such as Super D and 23: 21 fertilisers— unlike these days when Alliance One gives us fertiliser and helps us cultivate other crops such as maize. As I am speaking, I have a lot of maize and my homestead has attained household food security.
“In the past, we used to struggle even to get food but that is no longer the case,” he says.
To be a member of Tayambanawo Club is to agree to its terms without reservations. This means Shawa cannot employ an individual aged less than 18 years, in line with Agriculture Labour Practices (ALPs).
It also means Shawa has to pay his workers K670 every eight hours.
If he violates ALPs, which he tries not to do, the Agriculture Labour Practices ( A L P ) Committee, comes into play. ALP, whose members gather a stone throw from Shawa’s home, has been working day and night to ensure that its terms are being adhered to.
ALP chairperson, Evason Goliati Ganizani, explains:
“Our ALP, which was formed by Alliance One, ensures that farmers are adhering to the principles by not employing children [those aged less than 18 years], by not tolerating in forced labour practices, promoting justice, among other things. Actually, our role goes beyond that. Just a week ago, we provided school materials to a primary school learner who was facing challenges,” Ganizani says.
This is in line with the requirements of international tobacco buyers, who promote seven principles in tobacco farming. These include a crusade against child labour, the promotion of a safe work-environment, the matching of income and working hours, fair treatment, guarding against forced labour, the promotion of freedom of association and compliance with the law.
A ‘Training in all Agricultural Labour Practices’ manual, released in September 2011 by Philip Morris International— one of international tobacco buyers— when PMI Africa trained Alliance One International Malawi in November 2011 indicates that farmers who violate these principles face consequences.
The manual seeks to “ progressively eliminate child labour and other labour abuses where they are found and to achieve fair working conditions on all farms from which Alliance One customers source tobacco”.
Child labour is prohibited in Malawi. The Malawi Government, in the Employment Act, directs that no children under 16 years should be involved in work. It only allows persons aged between 16 and 18 years to do “non-hazardous work”.
A liance One Tobacco (Malawi) Corporate Affairs Manager, Fran Malila, observes that “Hazardous child labour is work that is dangerous, unsafe or unhealthy to the child because of its conditions and the type of work. Such work could result in a child being exploited, killed, injured, or become ill”.
Malila says, to avoid cases where children are employed on farms in the country, tobacco farmers are informed about acceptable agricultural labour practices.
“All Alliance One contracted growers are sensitised on ALP issues and are invited for training by the leaf technicians. All farmers are contractually obligated to comply with all of the seven principles through contracts signed at the beginning of each season. Through the IPS system and ALP programmes, Alliance One is better able to reach and educate its contracted growers on the importance of ALP compliance,” Malila says.
She adds: “Our approach is to improve conditions for farmers and workers through direct interaction with contracted farmers by leaf technicians and area field administrators based in each of the 10 growing areas, conducting training on ALP codes to encourage farmers to comply with labour codes, following up on reported incidences, [and taking] remedial actions whenever non-compliance is observed, [and conducting] sensitisation meetings with community leaders and members.”
If, ever, another example of a farmer who follows these labour codes was needed, one just needs to visit Ronald Mateche in Malungo Village, T/A Nkanda in Mchinji.
Mateche, 58, started cultivating barley in the 1980s. He once was a lone farmer, doing things his own way at his Mtendere Estate.
“In those days, when I was doing everything alone, it was a hassle to sell my tobacco. I could cross the borders to Zambia, or visit Leputala in Mozambique, and sleep in the open for days on end, as I sought buyers. In those days, I used to sell tobacco to fellow farmers, who could buy it at low prices. Life was tough,” Mateche says.
But that is the past. That hard past ended in 2008, when Mateche joined Alliance One under IPS.
“Things have changed. I have a ready market. Transport is not a problem as it [transport] is provided for by Alliance One,” Mateche says.
At his home, which is tucked between farmland, the fruits are there for everyone to see.
The two cattle he bought in the 2008/09 agricultural season have since multiplied. In the 2013/14 agricultural season, he managed to buy a motorcycle, 96 iron sheets and started constructing a house. In 2016/17 agricultural season, he has opened two mills in the neighbouring village, bought a Toyota Spacio and no longer travels to Zambia or Mozambique in search for markets.
In fact, for every 20 litres of diesel used by the mills, he generates K40, 000.
What is more? His household never runs out of maize, which, on his own volition, he decides to sell or not— knowing that he is on the road to harvesting more maize during the forthcoming agricultural season. Rain or no rain, dams are there to fill the gap.
The ceiling of hardships has, surely, dropped so low for Mateche that opportunities find him at home.