Portuguese traders in the coastal region imported the first batch of tobacco into the country in 1588. This set off the journey of tobacco as a means of livelihood in Kenya.
The traders imported into the country tobacco alongside cassava, cashew nuts and tomatoes.
The crop has been around as a commodity for trade as early as 3500 BC. Its leaves were believed to have medicinal value and was used by herbalists to treat toothaches as well as snake and insect bites.
Many years down the line, tobacco farming and use of its commercial products has become a matter of great concern for a variety of reasons.
In Mayanja Kibuke village in Bungoma County, for example, where we recently visited, the residents only have misery to show for their tobacco farming.
Area chief Mathew Juma Kasisi says locals have been growing tobacco since 1976, but their living standards are nothing to write home about.
“In this area almost everyone grows tobacco for livelihood. But 41 years later, our farmers are still living in abject poverty,” he says.
“Were it not for the County Government coming into place in 2013, we had lived the whole of our lives without seeing modern infrastructure like a hospital or a dispensary and even a school.”
He says many years of tobacco farming has transformed the land in the area into “a heap of infertile soil with no commercial value.”
He laments: “Fifteen years ago we had big forests in this area. They have disappeared because the trees were cut down and used as fuel for curing tobacco. Tobacco farming is one of the most dangerous economic activity and I call on all stakeholders to give our people alternatives.”
After harvesting, tobacco goes through a number of ‘curing’ processes. There is ‘flue curing’ where fire is used hence the need for firewood, ‘air curing’ where tobacco leaves are put in a ventilated room and left for 10 to 14 days to dry. Then there is ‘smoke curing’ where smoke is used to further dry the leaves.
The chief says residents are so used to growing tobacco that they never think of alternative source of livelihood.
“They have become addicted to tobacco farming and any proposal for a change meets hostility. They say they prefer tobacco because it takes less time to mature compared to sugarcane and other crops,” he says.
Migori County Governor Okoth Obado says all is not lost in the push to change the minds of tobacco farmers.
“Before county governments came in place, we had no viable alternatives. But with agriculture now being a devolved function, we are interacting with our tobacco farmers to see what other farming alternatives they can engage in,” he says.
He says already in Migori producer groups have started shifting to pepper, coffee, sunflower, millet, cotton and groundnuts adding that the results are so far encouraging.
“For those still stuck in tobacco farming, my government has made it very clear that the rights of tobacco farmers are upheld. If you contract them to grow tobacco on your behalf, you have no alternative but pay them in time. This habit of multinationals contracting our farmers under very oppressive terms has no room under my leadership,” he says.
The governor notes that his government is in the process of procuring a machine that will help add value to horticulture crops.
According to an article by Elisha Oongo, a programme officer at Kisumu-based Health Research & Social Welfare SocialNEEDS Network, tobacco farmers live in zones endowed with fertile land, adequate and consistent rainfall. This means such areas support other crops.
“Horticultural products (tomatoes, onions and cabbages) do well in this (Rangwe) region. The main challenge is the lack of viable market for the products, especially, when produced in large quantities,” he says.
He adds that farmers — most of whom aged 30-40 years and therefore still energetic—can engage in micro technical enterprises e.g. carpentry, masonry, brick-making, welding, shoe repair, etc.
In this regard, the governor says, provision of electricity at strategic centres/points and start-up funds would help divert the attention of farmers from tobacco.
In Bungoma, Morris Wekesa, 58, has been growing tobacco for the past 10 years. He admits that if he had an alternative occupation, he would abandon the crop.
“The work of growing tobacco is too involving. Tobacco is planted in various stages. Preparation of seed beds is tedious. They also need a lot of water and there is no reliable water source in this area,” he laments.
“In addition, there is weeding, top dressing, harvesting and curing. And what do I have to show after all these years of hard labour? Poverty.”
Governor Obado says the tragedy in tobacco farming is that manufacturers who contract the farmers determine the grade and decide on the pricing.
“The manufacturers are unfair. Our farmers take their harvests for weighing and they are shortchanged in actual weighs. The same manufacturers determine unilaterally on quality and price,” he says.
Ms Helen Kibwabwa, a community leader in Kuria district, says tobacco farming is negatively impacting on social and cultural practices. For instance, she says men now marry many wives to have more hands for tobacco farming.
Ms Emma Wanyonyi, a public education and capacity building and programme officer at the International Institute for Legislative Affairs (ILA) terms tobacco farming as “slave trade that has since crept back.”
She says farmers are ignorant of the effects of tobacco farming and have been misled that growing it increases soil fertility.”
She says tobacco growing is one of the carrier agents of cancer since farmers use strong pesticides that are carcinogenic.
“Visit any of the tobacco growing families and you will notice that many of them are nursing persistent body rashes inflicted by the pesticides.
Some tobacco growers also complain of chest pains.
“There are limits to how a country can be a passive witness as all these go on in tobacco farming communities,” Ms Wanyonyi says.
Contracting companies, she adds, do not give farmers protective gear while working in tobacco fields.
She says the curing period of tobacco is the most difficult as most farmers start nursing red swollen eyes thanks to heavy smoke and the pungent smell of the leaves under treatment.
Ms Wanyonyi add that in all tobacco growing zones, children cough a lot during harvesting and curing periods.
“There is also the aspect of child labour. Most parents wake up their children as early as 5 am to water the crops, help their parents in planting and harvesting before they go to school,” she says.
The officer says 41 years of tobacco farming in a county like Migori should have led to turnaround in economic fortunes.However, this is far from being the case.
“But what do we have? Poorer families, poor environmental, poor school enrollment and transition to secondary schools and explosion of diseases. It is time we had a voice that would lead from the front and liberate these families from this dehumanising servitude,” she says.
But most of the farmers we speak to are unanimous that if they had capital to engage in other agribusiness initiatives, they would abandon tobacco.
“We grow tobacco out of desperation. We are exposed to harsh chemicals and our women have been experiencing miscarriage. Nowadays we do not allow them to go near to seedbeds when they are pregnant,” says a farmer who only identifies himself as Robert.
Anti-tobacco lobbyists now warn that cancer ailments will demand Sh120 billion up from the current Sh17 billion treatment budget annually by 2020.
According to former National Authority for the Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse boss John Mututho, “the country is currently sinking Sh17 billion annually in equipping hospitals with cancer treatment facilities, procurement of medicines, and salaries for related health workers.”
He says the bill will hit Sh120 billion by 2020 “because every day there are new recruits in the use of tobacco products .”