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How Community Sensitization Led to Kihihi Farmers Transitioning from Tobacco to Alternative Crops


By Kabuye Ronald

Research shows that many avoidable deaths are as a result of Tobacco consumption across the entire world. The problem still persists in the developed and third world countries.

According to a study conducted by JCO Global oncology, an American society of clinic Oncology journal, Tobacco is a killer plant and the greatest single current public health threat. The annual global burden of disease reflected in premature death and disability attributable to tobacco use is more than 157 million disability-adjusted life years.

These disability-adjusted life years represent approximately 4% of all premature deaths and disability of all diseases combined.Smoking causes more than 7 million deaths annually, of which 90% are the result of direct tobacco use and approximately 10% a result of passive smoking. More than 1.1 billion people smoke worldwide, with 80% of smokers living in low- and middle-income countries where the prevalence of smoking is increasing compared with that of high-income countries. Reducing tobacco use can be based on strategies that diminish demand consumption) and/or supply (availability).

In Uganda, according to Mulago National Referral hospital records, 75% of the Oral Cancer patients treated have had a history of tobacco use while the Centre for Tobacco Control in Africa indicates that13500 Ugandans die annually due to tobacco related illness. 

These figures are still high despite the many interventions by government and development partners, so what are they not doing right?! May be this problem needs a bottom up approach.

The Ministry of Agriculture in Uganda not only scrapped off tobacco among Uganda’s cash crops but also withdrew funding for extension workers to advice on tobacco growing or promote the crop.

Tobacco growing in Uganda is mainly carried out in Hoima, Kanungu and some areas of West Nile for strictly commercial purposes.

A study conducted in Kanungu district of southwestern Uganda shows that Commercial tobacco growing in Uganda began in 1927 and the crop is currently grown in 25 of 112 districts. Approximately 75,000 farmers grow tobacco in Uganda and the crop has a market value of more than $80 million in 2013, making tobacco one of Uganda’s top 10 revenue sources. There are three commercially grown tobacco types, including flue-cured Virginia, burley (air-cured), and dark fire–cured tobacco. However, Uganda spends three times more of the money collected from tobacco revenue in treating tobacco related illness.

Tobacco is one of the most regulated crops in the country. Areas for production are regulated, as are the inputs to be used or prohibited, leaf buying, and tobacco types. Small-scale farmers who are registered contract with one of the five tobacco companies in Uganda to provide seedlings, inputs, and training for their contracted farmers. Uganda ratified the WHO FCTC in 2007 and passed the tobacco control act in 2015. 

Tobacco grown  in the district is primarily sold to a few tobacco companies that train and facilitate farmers that grow the crop. Registered small-scale farmers contract with the tobacco companies to buy the leaf, and tobacco companies, in turn, provide seedlings, fertilizers, agricultural loans, and training for their contracted farmers. Most households with large tobacco farms grow other crops, such as coffee, rice, and vanilla.

However with time some Tobacco farmers realized the dangers and larger effects of tobacco crop growing and production. They found out that they were being exploited by tobacco companies thus transitioned to growing other alternative cash crops that include coffee, rice, beans, cassava, vegetables, and sweet potatoes in addition farming and poultry. 

Baryamureeba Andrew, a resident of Nkunda Village in Kihihi sub county, Kanungu district is a former tobacco farmer who transitioned to coffee farming. He says he regrets not having transitioned sooner because he lost out on so much not only commercially but also health wise.

He notes that when they used to grow tobacco, tobacco companies would exploit them is so many ways promising them good prices but would on harvest find the market  price very low. For example where they would expect to seek at 3000 UGSHS, the companies would buy at as low as 900 UGSHS.

“I left tobacco growing because we were being cheated by the British American Tobacco, Now am a coffee farmer and I earn so much more than what I used to earn while still a tobacco farmer,” said Baryamureeba.

Barymureeba’s story is not any different from other farmers who transitioned to other crop growing from tobacco growing.

Jacob Kisa another Tobacco farmer says the cost of production of tobacco is so high that a farmer has to spend 50 percent of their total earnings. “You spend at least Ush1,000,000 ($278) to earn Ush2,000,000 ($556), which is not so profitable considering that a season is one full year,” he said.

He adds that falling prices aside, he stopped growing tobacco because it was too labor-intensive, requiring him to work on only one crop before he could sell yet he can now engage in different crops whose seasons take less periods with a minimal production cost of at least 20 to 30% depending on the season.

“Imagine having to wait a whole year to just get 50% of your input after all that hard work? But now, I can make up to 10 million shillings through coffee farming alongside other food crops of rice and maize which grows in just three to four months,” Kisa says.

The challenge faced however while transitioning is preparing the soil to be restored, which requires a lot of fertilizers which is quite costly.

He says Tobacco is a very poisonous plant with toxins which sit in the soil making it non productive so they had to wait for months for the land to rejuvenate and get ready for cultivation in addition to meeting very high costs for fertilizers.

“Tobacco leaves thrive with so much pest side which overwhelms the soil yet this pests become resilient due to too much usage of pesticides thus affecting the new crops,” Kisa explains.

Mugisha peter says he decided to transition from tobacco growing to Maize and rice growing because he had become a slave to tobacco firms yet the crop also had health implications.

“Growing coffee has no health effects but while still growing tobacco I used to suffer from eyes and chest problems from the too much fire while drying it in a grass hatched house which is known as “aburn” after harvest,” said Baryamureeba.

“When you are drying tobacco in the grass hatched house you are not supposed to enter inside because of the excessive heat but because the heat wouldn’t reach some tobacco leaves we would often be forced to enter which was very hazardous ,” said Mugisha.

“I also used to visit the health center about thrice a month due to lung infections and eye complications, see the irony, even the little I earned would be spent on buying medication.”

Ainemugisha Chrispus explains that tobacco growing is very tiresome and time consuming to the extent that his children would stop schooling and help him and his wife in the tobacco fields which is not the case with coffee growing activity yet it’s far more profitable.

I am now a free man, I have been trained on how to partion my land to grow a variety of crops, its liberating as I can now grow food for home consumption, and some for commercial purposes, I send some off to the market while I also engage in value addition through processing. There is evident growth,” he notes.

Ainemugisha however notes that they are now faced with a challenge of finding their own tools and markets because they were entirely dependent on the companies while in Tobacco production.

“Tobacco companies used to provide tools so we had become psychologically dependant on these companies for the tools and food as we only concentrated on tobacco all year round,” he adds.

He adds that they there is still active discouragement from Tobacco fronts and misinformation about the transitioning as well as intimidation that the alternative crop farming would never work or be lucrative enough which is sometimes demoralizing.

Ainemugisha’s children are now thriving in school because they can now attend on a daily and concentrate on their studies during school term.

James Tibeingana a teacher at Kihihi Church of Uganda primary school says they have managed to keep more children in school after this transitioning wave. “Before we would have a maximum of 20 children in each classroom during school time, parents would hold back their children to help in tobacco fields but now more parents are encouraging their children to stay in school,” he explains.

The tobacco farmers who transitioned to other crops applauded tobacco control activists who used to frequent their area sensitizing them about alternative crops and highlighting the disadvantage of tobacco.

At the peak of production in 2013, tobacco leaf was one of Uganda’s biggest foreign exchange earners, raking in $120 million in exports revenue and employing over 75,000 farmers who were producing about 18,000 tonnes per year however, with campaigns and such efforts against tobacco growing and consumption and Uganda’s 2015 passing of strong control laws such as banning of direct advertising and an increase in taxation, the industry went through a downward spiral.

Richard Baguma Tinkasimiire, a tobacco control activist and the national coordinator of Uganda Health Communication Alliance (UHCA) said that there is much need to liberate the mind of those still growing tobacco by helping the farmers with figures and facts so that they can get to know that actually growing tobacco is much more expensive, unhealthy, less profit choice as compared to growing alternative crops.

However, he adds that “what we now struggle with is the challenge of changing their mindset away from the dependency syndrome that they’ve been accustomed to with tobacco growing, as the tobacco companies were providing them with literally everything.” Baguma notes that this kind of dependency tends to cripple one’s capability and growth potential.

UHCA also faced a funding gap as they had to entirely depend on their own meager budget to cater for the entire exercise across Kihihi sub county and some neighboring parishes.

He emphasizes that tobacco factories enslave the farmers because they have no alternative market options unlike other crops which have alternative buyers and can be for both subsistence and commercial purposes.

Hon. James Kaberuka, Member of Parliament for Kinkizi West, Kanungu district observes the need to intensify research on the crops that can generate sustainable income like coffee.

He reiterates that tobacco enslaves farmers since the inputs are way more than the actual profit. “I wouldn’t encourage a farmer in my constituency to grow tobacco because it enslaves the farmer and also causes domestic violence,” Kaberuka says.

In Kihihi sub county, where almost the entire population of about 20,300 people in the 12 parishes engaged in tobacco farming, over 10,000 have now shifted to growing alternative crops ranging from coffee, maize, rice and beans. “The campaign was able to reach 600 individuals who served as promoters who passed on the skills they acquired and information to others farmers in their respective parishes and villages,” Baguma says.

Milton Nankunda, the Chairman Kihihi SubCounty in Kanungu district says that the people growing other crops are now earning ten times more.

He says that the sub county has plans of not only intensifying the sensitization program but also provide alternative seedling in addition to fertilizers to the farmers in the area.

According to Nankunda, the area leaders with support from development partners and health activists, UHCA embarked on trainings of farmers at county level where workshops were held at county headquarters and community centers, those trained would subsequently become ambassadors and passed on the knowledge and skills at village and grass root levels.

“We camped for a week at each sub county headquarters engaging our people and showing them how to integrate coffee and other food crops in their farming, we provided them with seedlings and fertilizers to rejuvenate their land which had lost fertility after years of tobacco growing,” he explains.

The activists mobilized the tobacco farmers for training through the area local leaders. They also used local announcer to spread the message.

“Tobacco growing was also the biggest child labour employer and yet the entire process is toxic, which put the children at the risk of getting health complications such as heart and lung diseases,” Nankunda says.

He says they concentrated on discouraging tobacco-growing because, by keeping farmers busy with one commodity all-year-round, food crop production was negatively impacted and the area faced food insecurity.

According to President Yoweri Museveni, the future prospects of coffee are massive and thus urged more farmers to join the coffee production chain so that Uganda can exploit her full coffee potential.

However, the president also encouraged farmers to engage growing other food crops alongside coffee as a means of ensuring food security. “I encourage farmers to engage in intercropping so that they can have some for home consumption as well as for commercialization,” he advised.

Government recently signed a deal with Uganda Vinci Coffee Company Limited to establish a coffee processing plant at Namanve industrial park but also help sell Ugandan coffee abroad.

During the State of the Nation Address, 2022, President Museveni noted that “The total value of coffee in the world is $460 billion. However, of this figure, the coffee growing countries only take $25 billion. The African coffee growing countries only take $2.4billion When we de-hust, roast, grind and pack here, Uganda will get more dollars and we shall also pay higher prices to our farmers.”

According to Museveni, it is this value addition to Ugandan coffee that Ugandan farmers need to grow the industry which will translate in to national development.

This according to Kaberuka is exactly the way to go through intensified research that will ensure that the full potrential of Uganda’s coffee industry is fully exploited and thus minimizing the growing of Tobacco which is actually doing more harm than good.

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