Tobacco stakeholders meet over marketing season

Rudo Boka

HARARE – Stakeholders in the tobacco industry are expected to hold an urgent meeting today to try and come up with proposed modalities on how the 2020 marketing season will be run in light of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) chairperson Pat Devenish, told The Herald Finance & Business in an interview that industry players would meet after the initial proposed guidelines to combat the spread of coronavirus, also known as Covid-19 were not approved by the Ministry and Health and Child Welfare.

Declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 11 March 2020, the highly contagious disease has become a global emergency, given its devastating effect on the entire global population and the economy.

The crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, is plunging the world economy to depths unknown since the Second World War, adding to the woes of an economy that was already struggling to recover from the pre 2008 crisis.

The spread of the virus has reached 50 African Union member states: about 10 500 cases, 1 074 recoveries and 519 deaths; and is showing no signs of slowing down.

In Zimbabwe, two people have succumbed to the deadly virus while 11 confirmed cases have been reported to date, according to official figures.

The TIMB had proposed  April 22 as the tobacco auction opening day.

Tobacco is one of Zimbabwe’s single largest foreign currency earners and it is expected to come in handy as far as forex generation for the country is concerned after some gold buyers were locked away because of coronavirus.

However, tobacco floors are normally congested during the selling season, making the environment favourable for quick spread Covid-19. In some instances, farmers would sleep at the floors for days due delays related to selling their crop.

Zimbabwe is currently under a 21-day lockdown as part of measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

“The (initial) proposed guidelines were not approved,” said Mr Devenish said. “So we are meeting stakeholders tomorrow (today) to come up with a shared position, which we will take to Deputy Minister (of Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement) Douglas Karoro who will then take them the Minister Shiri.”

“We cannot wait any more, but still the ultimate decision lies with the Minister who would make a decision on recommendations.”

Preparations for the 2020 tobacco selling season were thrown into disarray owing to the 21-day lockdown.

The Tobacco Floors normally are expected to provide proper facilities for the expected surge of people coming to sell or make enquiries. Some suppliers of vital services that would be expected at auction floors are closed. In the face of Covid-19, ablution facilities and associated chemicals and accessories will be critical. Backup water supplies will be required. Players in the industry may also need to adjust their computer systems to allow growers to participate in the selling process even if they are not inside the premises.

In Malawi, they were proactive by establishing the USSD 252 platform, which growers can use to see their sales information.

A proactive approach will remove panic from growers which may lead to many growers losing their crop to middleman. Even when growers are not allowed on the auction floor, there is still need for a transparent selling system hence the need to adjust systems to enable growers to participate remotely as has been done in Malawi.

Malawi has always had a grower representative system where growers send their bales for sale and do not actually come to the floors.

To implement this in Zimbabwe overnight will be a challenge and may cause disorder in the market.

The Ministry of Agriculture will make a decision on whether the 22nd of April is suitable to open the floors taking into account the mammoth task of addressing these issues and communicating to the growers in good time to avoid exposing tobacco farmers to Covid-19 pandemic

Malawi, one of major tobacco producers in Africa will open its first tobacco floor on April 20 and the regulator, The Tobacco Commission has come up with preventive measures to effectively run the floors. 

These include restricting the number of people in the selling floor to ensure that one-meter social distancing is observed. 

Entry to the selling floors will be restricted to personnel which have tasks to perform.

Some tobacco sales will be conducted in shifts with minimum three sales per floor including auctions sales.

There would be no re-lay of tobacco to avoid congesting the floors.

On the auction sales, bales will be laid 0,6 meters apart to provide adequate social distancing for tobacco buyers and the selling teams on the buying line.

Growers will not be allowed to witness the sales. Instead they will be represented by grower associations.

People will be allowed in selling floors after undergoing body temperature scanning.

Where necessary, individuals with temperature outside recommended range would be referred to a medical centre that will be put up at selling centres.

Some players in the tobacco sector said Government should allow some buyers to put up buying centres in tobacco growing areas as part measures to decongest places such as Boka Tobacco Floors where thousands flock daily.