BY FIDELITY MHLANGA

ZIMBABWE’s top foreign currency earner, tobacco, has been hit hard by the extremely hot weather conditions, which are likely to significantly reduce yields, especially where there are no irrigation facilities.

The dry spell, which has not spared other crops and livestock, has wilted the non-irrigated tobacco crop amid fears this could scupper this year’s crop sales. Zimbabwe earns an estimated US$1 billion annually from tobacco exports.

“The rainfall pattern has been very variable and most dryland crops have not grown sufficiently to get beyond the vegetative stage. If adequate rainfall is received within the next seven days or so the crops would be able to recover significantly. Irrigated crops are being reaped and cured,” Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) chief executive Andrew Matibiri said.

Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers’ Union president Shadreck Makombe bemoaned the effects of the prevailing heatwave.

“The situation on the ground is bad. It is very dry for both irrigated and dry land crops and there is no water in dams giving rise to high false ripening,” Makombe said.

Latest data from TIMB shows that as of December 20 last year, total hectarage under tobacco marginally grew by 2,8% to 81 977 against 79 708 hectares planted during same period last year.

A paltry 13 083 hectares are under irrigation with the rest relying on rain-fed water. Moreso, the number of farmers who registered to grow tobacco tumbled 15% to 143 568 from 168 735 prior year.

Zimbabwe Farmers’ Union president Paul Zakariya painted a bleak outlook about the state of the tobacco crop.

“The situation is quite stressful. The crop is heat stressed and in urgent need for moisture. Farmers can only hope that the anticipated rains this week will bring relief,” Zakariya said.

Asked if the dry spell will affect overall 2020 crop output Zakariya said: “That’s a very difficult question to answer … The output depends very much on circumstances that are well beyond our control. Rainfall anytime now can be a huge game-changer! No definite statistics can be given at this stage.”

Unlike in previous seasons when farmers made rich pickings due to getting paid in hard currency, the just-ended season saw the central bank paying farmers just 50% of their earnings per sale in foreign currency. The rest was paid in the devaluing local currency.

Consequently, most farmers said they failed to recoup their investments as the local currency eroded their earnings as a result of its loss in value.

To worsen matters, when receiving the local currency component of their earnings, transaction delays occurred.

In the past season, the average price of the golden leaf was deplorably low at $2 per kg, down from $2,92 registered in the prior season, decimating farmers’ earnings. Despite recording poor prices, total output grew to 259 million kg in the 2019 season from 253 million kg the previous year.