A study by College of Health Sciences, Makerere University, indicates that 73 per cent of cases treated at the Cancer Institute are as a result of tobacco use. But this is a crop that earned government $75m (about Shs192.6b) of export revenue last year and more than Shs105b in taxes. It earned farmers Shs81b in crop purchase.
Tobacco remains the main cash crop to many farmers in 25 districts spread across West Nile, Bunyoro, middle northern and south western Uganda.
It accounts for more than 60 per cent of household incomes in areas where it is grown.
Dr Dan Mugezi, an agricultural researcher, explains that a tobacco plantation takes seven months to mature. The first step is to plant the seeds in a seed bed, where they remain for three to four weeks.
However, since tobacco is a heavy feeder (which explains the reason as to why it drains the soil on which it is planted of nutrients), you need to first fertilise the soil.
After the seeds have matured, they are transplanted to the main garden.
“But it’s advisable that the transplanting is done during the rainy season to allow the roots grow closer to the surface of the soil as needed for the plant to grow. If it is not a rainy season, make sure you fill each hole where a tobacco plant is to be placed with enough water,” he explains.
At this stage the plant is delicate and can turn yellowish around the stem if the soil nutrients are not adequate. When this happens, you will need to use fertilisers to boost the soil with nitrogen which is needed for tobacco growth.
Since tobacco requires a lot of light, when transplanting it, place each crop two to three feet away from each other. The spacing will also allow weeding without damaging the roots which are so close to the soil surface.
He explains, “The spacing is necessary as they need enough light to give a good grade. After transplanting them, they should be cared for through watering, fertilising the soil, spraying the leaves, weeding and cutting off of flowers whenever they grow because they prevent leaves from broadcasting.”
Jesse Kasaijja, chairperson, Bunyoro Tobacco Farmers, who has been a tobacco farmer for 15 years, says it largely depends on manual work. “The only time we use machines is when we are ploughing but most of the work like planting, weeding, spraying is done manually.”
He adds that while it is a cumbersome job, they have reaped benefits. “I know that we have managed to get money for school fees from growing tobacco. Some farmers have built houses and commercial buildings whereas others have bought cars and motor cycles.”
Morris Candia, spokesperson, tobacco farmers in the West Nile, adds that three companies have built infrastructure in the region. “The three main tobacco companies; British American Tobacco Uganda, Leaf Tobacco Company and Continental have constructed schools, health centres and bridges for us.”
Emmanuel Adripiyo, chairperson, Maracha District, explains that the district earns Shs100m to Shs200m a year as revenue from tobacco depending on how good the season was.
The Tobacco Control Bill 2014 was tabled before Parliament. It is a private members bill moved by Kinkizi East MP, Chris Baryomunsi, seconded by Ndorwa West MP, David Bahati.
The Bill highlights the need to increase taxes and in the long run making it hard for people to consume tobacco products. It seeks to amend the existing legislation on exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke. It also proposes measures for the control of tobacco use.
Also, it seeks to regulate the manufacture, sale, labelling, promotion, advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products. And to repeal the Tobacco Control and Marketing Act 1967, which gives tobacco companies the power to determine prices and makes them the sole buyers of tobacco from farmers. Therefore, while some clauses do not mention tobacco farmers, they either have a direct or indirect effect on tobacco growing in the country.
Therefore, some farmers are against it. Candia says if passed in its current form, it will rob them of the ready market they have always had for their tobacco harvest. “A section in the Bill seeks to repeal the Tobacco Control and Marketing Act, which provides us with a ready market.” Kasaijja adds that in its current form, the Bill intends to take away some of the benefits they have been getting from growing tobacco. “We shall not be able to get services like hospitals and schools because these were made a requirement from the tobacco companies in the Act.”
However, Dr Baryomunsi clarifies that the Bill has no intentions of banning tobacco growing. “If passed in its current form, the bill will help farmers get a better deal,” he explains, “The Tobacco Control and Marketing Act created a monopoly for tobacco companies that in whichever region they are based. But if is passed in its current form, it will open the market and allow competition, farmers will sell their produce to the person offering the highest price.”
Affected by weather: However, these benefits are not free of challenges. Abdullah Angetti, 51, who has grown tobacco farmer for 21 years in Terego, Maracha District, explains that the crop largely depends on weather. “We had a dry spell in 2012 and this largely affected my harvest. I had a plantation from which I expected to get over Shs1m but I only ended up with Shs300,000 since most of the crop was destroyed. In other seasons our plantations are affected by hail storms,” Angetti explains.
Labour intensive: Besides the weather, Mulwanyi says tobacco growing is a labour intensive job. “A tobacco farmer, has to be in the garden every day. The crop needs weeding all the time, watering, you have to put fertilisers among other things which consume a lot of time in that you cannot think of investing time in another crops.”
Single season: While they have to work hard, they only have one season in a year. Kasaijja explains that when they plant tobacco in February and wait until July to harvest it. Mulwanyi explains that this means they only earn once a year.
Affects soil fertility: Tobacco extracts nutrients from the soil. “It requires fertilisers if it is to yield any crop at the end of the season. These fertilisers in a way affect the fertility of the soil in that by the time the crop is harvested, it will have extracted a lot of nutrients from the soil leading to poor soils,” observes Godfrey Kamese, an environmentalist at National Association for Professional Environmentalists.
Cannot be integrated with other crops: More so, because it requires a lot of fertility, tobacco cannot be integrated with other crops. It requires a lot of lighting and space therefore it not be grown along with other crops.