Tobacco Farming In Kenya has both the good and the dark side: Tobacco is a plant grown for its leaves, which are dried and fermented before being put in tobacco products. Tobacco contains nicotine which is mainly used in the manufacture of cigarettes, cigars, dry snuff, shisha and hookah.

Tobacco Farming in Kenya

Tobacco lives once dried and fermented they are added different types of flavors such as menthol, vanilla, orange, apple, cola, chocolate, cherry, coffee and grape to produce different products.

Tobacco framing is mainly grown in large North Carolina and Virginia where is does so well due to mild and sunny climate. In Kenya it is grown in counties of Migori, Bungoma and Meru. It is arguably as the most labor-intensive crop in Kenya since it takes more than 1200 hours of unpaid household labor to produce one acre of tobacco. Most of the farmers register yields of 1000-1200 kgs per acre but a few mange to get 1500 kgs per acre. Also, the average buying price per kg is Kshs 100.

Despite a sizeable footprint on tobacco farming in Kenya, tobacco has been relatively neglected in the literature on development trajectories and the political economy of the region.

Much tobacco research focuses on global public health debates concerned with the effects of tobacco consumption. Such concerns are certainly warranted: tobacco consumption is responsible for extremely negative health outcomes at both individual and societal levels.

However, public health research has shaped the way in which tobacco is studied, often emphasising crop substitution over a careful analysis of the reasons why regions like southern Africa have become specialised tobacco producers, the drivers of its relative success as an export commodity or the implications of tobacco farming for processes of transformation and agrarian change.

Tobacco farming has been similarly neglected in the agrarian studies in Kenya despite its prominent position in regional agricultural exports and being a main source of direct income and employment for many farming households and workers.

The Facts on Tobacco Farming In Kenya

The median former tobacco-farming household has nearly twice as many household resources
compared to the median tobacco-farming household.

  • Many tobacco farmers report a small profit when they consider only their tobacco revenue minus their direct costs (e.g., seeds, fertilizer, etc.); however, this does not account for the value of their labour.
  • Tobacco is arguably the most labour-intensive crop in Kenya — for most farmers, it takes more than 1000 hours of unpaid household labour to produce one acre of tobacco, even when accounting for hired labour for the most intensive tasks such as harvesting.
  • When household labour is included in the profit calculation, even at a minimal value, almost all  farmers are operating at a substantial economic loss.
  • The opportunity cost of farming tobacco is high. Tobacco farming households spend more than 1.5 times the working hours farming on average compared to non-tobacco farming households. This is precious time that farmers cannot spend on other economic activities, education, or leisure.
  • Most contract farmers report being stuck in a debt cycle—growing tobacco only to pay back the previous year’s debt to the leaf-buying companies.
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Mitigating Tobacco Farming In Kenya Financial Loses

Tobacco control initiatives in very high Human Development Index (HDI) countries have resulted in reductions in consumption and have likely raised the costs of doing business for tobacco companies.

Tobacco Farming

To mitigate further financial losses, these companies have been expanding efforts to increase both consumption and production in lower HDI countries, with economic prosperity brought by the tobacco industry being the principal narrative for the expansion (Drope et al 2018). It therefore follows that governments in lower HDI countries, which are often more economically
and politically vulnerable, have encouraged expansion of the tobacco sector based on a narrative of increased foreign direct investment and/or the protection of the economic livelihoods of farmers who are dependent on tobacco growing.

In recent years, there has been an increase in empirical research to counter the tobacco industry’s economic prosperity narrative. The results are being used by policy makers, investors in the agricultural sector, tobacco control advocates, and health workers to safeguard interests of those who are dependent on tobacco growing for livelihoods (Makoka et al 2016, Magati et al 2018).

Empirical evidence from this research has demonstrated that tobacco farming is not a prosperous pursuit for most farmers. Specifically, research consistently finds that most smallholder farmers over-pay for tobacco inputs (e.g. fertilizers, pesticides, etc.), receive very low prices for their tobacco leaf, and dedicate hundreds of hours (more than any other widelygrown crop) to a mostly  on profitable economic pursuit (Drope et al 2018).

Further, the opportunity costs of farming tobacco are very high, with farmers foregoing human capital development and other often more lucrative economic opportunities because they expend so much household labour toiling in the tobacco fields and preparing the leaf for sale.

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Much of the economic struggle of tobacco farmers appears to be driven by the phenomenon of contract farming. In such an arrangement, farmers receive inputs at the start of the season from a leaf-buying contractor without upfront payment, but they are then obligated to sell their crop to the contractor at a price dictated by the buyer and pay back the costs of the inputs (also at prices dictated by the provider). Not surprisingly, with all leverage held by the contractor, farmers report
unfair treatment, including low prices for their crops and well-above-market prices for the inputs.

Given the typically unprofitable nature of tobacco farming in Kenya, it is important to provide empirical and detailed reasons why smallholder tobacco farmers are attracted to tobacco farming in Kenya, why they continue to cultivate it, and what can be done to transition them to other livelihoods. Previous research in Kenya has suggested that more than 55,000 households engage in tobacco farming in Kenya as the primary source of livelihood (Kibwage, Netondo & Magati 2015).

Research suggests that farmers grow tobacco for three main reasons:

  1. There is a perception of an assured market despite prices being consistently low;
  2. There is difficulty in obtaining credit for other economic activities;
  3. It is a way of generating cash in low-cash economies for necessities like education and healthcare

There has been progress in educating smallholder farmers about the economic impacts of tobacco growing and working with relevant government departments to help improve their prospects. First, some Kenyan government agencies, including the Ministry of Health and the Tobacco Control Board, have been supportive of efforts by tobacco control advocates in building the capacity of county government officials and alerting farmers to the dangers of tobacco use.

Indeed, the Kenyan government has been at the forefront in legislating tobacco control by signing the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) and tobacco
control regulations. Article 17 of the FCTC specifically addresses the promotion of economically-viable alternatives to tobacco farming. Second, tobacco control advocates and researchers have consistently provided empirical evidence to counter the prosperity narrative promoted by the tobacco industry.

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Tobacco Farming in Kenya and Cigarettes

Tobacco farming has led to more production of Cigarettes and cigars which are manufactured from cured and finely cut tobacco, which are combined with other flavors and additives, then rolled into a paper cylinder. There different varieties of tobacco leaves but the most used in cigarettes and cigars is the Burley tobacco. The leading companies that have dominated cigarettes production from in Kenya are -British American Tobacco and Mastermind Tobacco. Kenya is not only a tobacco growing country but also serves as a regional hub for the manufacturing of tobacco products.

There are more than 17.4 billion of cigarettes produced in Kenya annually. With suppliers in Kenya that includes Dial A Drink Kenya  – an online platform that supplies alcoholic beverages and soft drinks in Nairobi Kenya-. This is to mention just one of the company that is a trusted best seller on cigarettes delivery in Nairobi.

In the recent years there have been more rising companies example the Phillips thus making the tobacco farming in Kenya promising but only for large tobacco farmers since its less profitable when in small scale compared when done in large scale. The exporting of tobacco leaves is more profitable where one can make up to $2million per acre. Marlboro, Newport and SM are examples of well locally refined tobacco leaves cigarettes.


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