When economic challenges could not allow him to go on with his formal education, Thomas Matanda Shawa dropped out of school in Standard 7.
Shawa remained with only one weapon to use to fight his way up to adulthood: farming.
“My parents were very particular in training their children farm work and I’m very thankful to them for that,” explains Shawa, now an established tobacco farmer who hails from Kazengera Village T/A Nkukula, Dowa.
Shawa went into serious tobacco farming at the age 21 but the young farmer struggled for four years with very little success.
It wasn’t until 2011-2012 growing season that Shawa hit the jackpot after he had joined contract farming with JTI and for the first time the young farmer raked home a fortune at the end of the season.
Contract farming is an arrangement under the Integrated Production System (IPS) that government formerly sanctioned in 2012 to allow tobacco growers and buyers go into an agreement.
Under the arrangement, the expectations of the grower and the buyer are made clear and the partnership enables the best yield from the land and a higher quality crop for sustainable returns year after year.
For five years now, 31-year-old Shawa is a farmer under IPS and on partnership with JTI. He is also chairperson for Mchenga Tobacco Farmers Club in the area.
Unlike before, Shawa now has a lot to show for the five years he has been growing tobacco in partnership with JTI.
“Contract farming helps growers produce quality leaf desired by the buyer and this in turn fetches good returns to the farmer,” explains Shawa. “This arrangement has really transformed my living standards.
“I have managed to build a modern house and buy a brand-new one-ton pickup to ease transportation of my tobacco to the market.”
Shawa has also managed to buy cattle and a business piece of land along the Lumbadzi-Dowa Road, on top of having enough food in reserve for his family and the people he employs to handle the tobacco.
A tour to shawa’s one-and-a-half hectare of hybrid tobacco and to his house clearly reveals why the young man is a happy farmer.
At the field, one is met with a beautiful green stretch of tobacco with stems tall and heavily laden with quality leaf, while back at his house two long barns stand full of curing leaf.
But interestingly, tobacco farmers just next to Shawa’s field have registered little yield this year on the account that the rain pattern has not been favourable.
“That is where a contract farmer differs from a farmer who is not under contract,” explains Shawa. “For the first four years of my tobacco farming, what you are seeing in these tobacco fields nearby was exactly what I used to experience until I went into partnership with JTI.
“The main advantage with contract farming is that there is always high level of interaction between the grower and the buyer and the leaf is monitored right from the nursery to the final product.”
Shawa says JTI’s leaf technicians have always worked closely with the farmers and that following their advice and extension services, the farmers had built box ridges to trap water within the ridges as a way of beating the dry spell.
JTI also provided the farmers with the right seed, fertilizers and all the required materials for the production of the desired quality of tobacco.
The company also provided their contract farmers with fertilizer and maize seed for them to grow and have enough staple food to allow them work in their tobacco fields uninterrupted.
“Our contract buyer knows that when the farmer has no enough food, he would either be tempted to sell his tobacco to vendors or he will spend time looking for food. So JTI provides us with everything so that we spend all the time in the field,” explains Shawa.
Five years in partnership with JTI, the enterprising farmer is not without followers. Luka Aaron is among the farmers who have not just admired Shawa’s success but joined the buyer-grower partnership too.
Aaron admits that he was a tomato farmer at first but he couldn’t help it after seeing the success Shawa had registered through partnering with JTI.
This 2015/2016 growing season, Aaron, a member of Shawa’s Mchenga Club, has grown 2.5 hectares of hybrid tobacco in partnership with JTI.
Aaron concurs with Shawa in summarizing the benefits a grower under IPS enjoys.
“We get continuous monitoring at every stage of production so in the end we rest assured that we have produced the desired quality,” explains Aaron, adding: “Besides, this process minimizes reoffers at the market.”
The growers further agree that working close with the buyer also checks the issue of child labour which is another serious challenge affecting the tobacco industry in Malawi.
IPS is currently being run as a government approved policy regulated by the Tobacco (Integrated Production System) Regulations of 2014 (IPS Regulations) in parallel with auction system.
Although the current split between the two systems is 80 percent in favour of IPS, growers are at liberty to choose a system that suits them best.
The IPS Regulations and policy guidelines are yet to be enacted into a Tobacco industry Act to ensure that the interests of both the grower and the buyer are adequately provided for and protected by the law.
However, when all is said and done, perhaps the merits of IPS may best be measured not only by what one farmer, Shawa, in Dowa has achieved in 5 years.
The merits may also be measured best by the quality of the leaf Shawa, Aaron and the tens of thousands of farmers under the system have managed to achieve even in the wake of the 2015/2016 adverse rain pattern.