The Anatomy of a Tobacco Growing Rural Economy

The West Nile region of Uganda which includes; Arua, Yumbe, Maracha, Zombo, Koboko, Adjumani and Nebbi districts, is a chief grower of tobacco. This has been the case since the 1930s when the colonial government chose to establish the crop in West Nile so that its adaption would not interfere with the cotton and coffee growing that was already thriving in the Lake Victoria basin and the Elgon areas. Today, the crop grown by this area fetches an estimated sh40b annually.

However as several citizen reports to News-Hapa show, the crop and economy around it isn’t exactly a rosy rain of bank notes falling onto the farmers. These reports indicate that activities of this admittedly lucrative industry continuously struggle against the common good. “There are too many cases of child labour in Yumbe district where children are forced to work in tobacco fields by their parents," one lady citzen from Yumbe reported to News-Hapa in early August. Today we continue to receive other varied but still negative reports from citizens. Take this report on a struggle for land between citizens and the tobacco companies which are quite powerful given the depth of their pockets. “The available land which our locals were cultivating for food crops for surviving has been renowned by a tobacco company,” Sylvester from Maracha reported at around the same time. Just last week, Jerry from Arua had this to say about the tobacco business. “People have cut down trees for curing tobacco so weather patterns have been affected” He adds that the change in patterns has led to, “unpredictable produce hence food shortage leading to famine in the region.”

Perhaps as a result of the struggle between tobacco industry and the communal good, residents are slowly shunning the crop. Some people are seeing opportunities in the negative side effects of this old industry while others are simply u-turning to new cash crops. Geoffrey from Adjumani has taken to planting trees where others are cutting them for tobacco curing. “Planting tree is one of my best hobbies. So how do do I benefit from carbon trade?” he asks News-Hapa. The non-profit, Arua Rural Community Development (ARCOD), is opposed to tobacco growing and therefore introduced chili production in West Nile in 2009 as an alternative to tobacco growing. Within its first year of work, it had converted 500 from tobacco to chili. It continues to gain traction.

However, tobacco remains the chief cash crop in the region. Farmers interviewed from time to time by the media decry that other alternatives are not as viable commercially.

- Sept. 9, 2013
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