Tobacco in Zimbabwe

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Zimbabwe is the largest grower of tobacco in Africa, and the 4th largest grower in the world. Three types of tobacco have traditionally been grown in the country: Virginia flue-cured, burley and oriental tobacco. Over 95% of Zimbabwe’s tobacco consists of flue-cured tobacco, which is renowned for its flavor. [1] The cash crop is a major part of Zimbabwe's economy. In 2017, tobacco accounted for 11% of the country's GDP, and 3 million of the country's 16 million people depended on tobacco farming for their livelihood. [2] The main export market is China, which purchased 54% of Zimbabwe's exports in 2015. [3]


History of tobacco production

SeasonTobacco sales
(million lb)
19100.1 [4] :51
194641 [4] :189
1950107 [4] :189
1957139 [5]
1965325 [6]
1971132 [6]

Tobacco was grown in Zimbabwe for subsistence purposes even before the British arrived in Africa. In 1889, the British South Africa Company established British rule over what became Southern Rhodesia. The European colonists reserved half of the country's land for their own use. [7] The highveld was not desirable for growing food crops and raising livestock, so the Company turned to tobacco as a crop that could thrive in the sandy soil. [4] :51 Rhodesia modeled its tobacco industry on the United States, adopting American production methods to grow Virginia tobacco. [6]

Rhodesian tobacco found a ready export market, as Rhodesia was in a customs union with South Africa and had Imperial Preference in the British market. [4] :51 By the 1950s, Rhodesia was producing over 100 million pounds of tobacco each year, 99% of it Virginia flue-cured tobacco. [5] At its peak, Rhodesia produced 20% of the world's flue-cured tobacco. [8]

In 1965, the white minority government of Rhodesia declared independence from Great Britain. International sanctions against Rhodesia eliminated many export markets, and the anti-smoking movement reduced global demand for tobacco. In 1968, Rhodesia was hit by the worst drought in 40 years. White farmers were also targeted for assassination by black rebels in the Rhodesian Bush War. As a result, the Rhodesian tobacco crop declined from 325 million pounds in 1965 to 132 million pounds in 1971. [6]

Transition to black majority rule

In 1979, the civil war ended with the Lancaster House Agreement, which granted the country black majority rule. For the next 20 years, Robert Mugabe and his ZANU-PF government allowed the whites to keep farming the land. Tobacco production recovered and peaked at 260 million kilograms (570×10^6 lb) in 1998. [9]

Land redistribution

At independence, almost half of the country's arable land was owned by whites, who made up less than 5% of the population. [10] Although land reform had been a major rallying cry of the black rebels, the Lancaster House Agreement prohibited nationalization of land before 1990. White-owned land could only be transferred to blacks on a "willing buyer, willing seller" basis, and purchases were funded by the British government. Although white farmers felt some apprehension as the 1990 deadline approached, no large-scale land confiscations took place. [11]

In 1997, Tony Blair led the Labour Party to victory in the British general election after 18 years of Conservative rule. In 1999, Mugabe accused Blair of reneging on previous commitments made to Zimbabwe by the Conservatives. [12] In 2000, Zimbabwe began to forcibly seize white-owned farmland without compensation and redistribute the land to blacks. The new black settlers were unskilled in tobacco farming and did not hold title to the land, so they lacked the collateral needed to obtain bank loans. [13] Much of Zimbabwe's farmland went out of cultivation, and the tobacco crop bottomed out at 48 million kg in 2008, just 21% of the 2000 crop. Tobacco production in Zimbabwe hit record highs of 252 million kg in 2019 according to statistics from the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board.


In 2005, the contract system was introduced into Zimbabwe. Buyers like British American Tobacco began to contract with tobacco farmers to buy their entire crop at the end of the season. In return, the buyer would supply the farmer with all necessary inputs, including seed and fertilizer. [14] Buyers also took greater responsibility for the crop, sending agronomists to the contracted fields to advise farmers on agricultural techniques and make sure that tobacco workers were paid on time. [15]

In 2005, China Tobacco began to invest in Zimbabwe through its subsidiary, Tian Ze Tobacco. The entry of the Chinese into the Zimbabwean tobacco market drove up sales prices and improved contract terms. Farmers were able to lease agricultural equipment from Tian Ze on a 3-year repayment schedule. By 2016, Tian Ze was issuing US$40 million each year in interest-free loans to tobacco farmers. [16] [17]

Tobacco production recovered under the contract system of agriculture. The 2018 tobacco crop of 258 million kg was a new record for the post-land reform era, almost reaching the all-time peak of 260 million kg achieved in 1998. The structure of the industry has been completely overturned. 1,500 large-scale tobacco farmers grew 97% of the crop in 2000, but 110,000 small-scale tobacco farmers grew 65% of the crop in 2013. [18] The white farmers had sold most of their tobacco at auction, but 80% of Zimbabwe's tobacco crop was grown under contract in 2016. [19] Most of Zimbabwe's tobacco crop was sold to European and American companies in 2000, but 54% of Zimbabwe's tobacco exports were sold to China in 2015. [3]


Tobacco produced in Zimbabwe
Yearmillion kg±%
1980 125    
1981 72−42.4%
1982 91+26.4%
1983 99+8.8%
1984 125+26.3%
1985 108−13.6%
1986 116+7.4%
1987 121+4.3%
1988 115−5.0%
1989 130+13.0%
Yearmillion kg±%
1990 130+0.0%
1991 179+37.7%
1992 211+17.9%
1993 205−2.8%
1994 182−11.2%
1995 198+8.8%
1996 209+5.6%
1997 215+2.9%
1998 260+20.9%
1999 193−25.8%
Yearmillion kg±%
2000 228+18.1%
2004 69    
2005 73+5.8%
2008 48−34.2%
2010 59+22.9%
2011 124+110.2%
2012 144+16.1%
Yearmillion kg±%
2013 167+16.0%
2014 217+29.9%
2015 189−12.9%
2016 202+6.9%
2017 189−6.4%
2018 253+33.9%
2019 258+2.0%
Source: 1980–2000; [9] 2004–2005; [20] 2008; [18] 2010–2013; [8] 2014; [17] 2015; [21] 2016–2017; [22] 2018–2019; [23]

See also

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