Jabulani Tembe, farmer at Laluhle farm in Kosi Bay, KwaZulu-Natal, and secretary of the Black Farmers Tobacco Association (BFTA), says that it is not easy to become a tobacco farmer in South Africa. So if you are thinking of becoming a tobacco farmer, make sure you have all the information necessary before you begin.
Tembe has been in agriculture for many years, farming with different crops. Six years ago, in 2015, he joined the BFTA.
“I was interested in tobacco farming for a long time,” he says. “It was very difficult to enter the market, or to get contracts from the processors who buy from farmers.”
It was through BFTA that Tembe was finally able to start farming and selling tobacco.
“It is very difficult to farm tobacco if you are not part of an organised association,” Tembe says.
This is due to many reasons. It is difficult to get seedlings, and there are government regulations that regulate the production of tobacco as well as the amount of nicotine it is allowed to contain.
“This alone makes it very difficult,” Tembe says. “You cannot just pick up the seed and plant tobacco. You have to get the right variety to meet the standards regulated by the government.”
You also can’t get your seedlings from any nursery, only a few nurseries across South Africa supply the correct seedlings that meet the requirements.
Where to farm tobacco in South Africa
Tobacco crops thrive in climates where it is warm and dry. Excess rainfall results in thin, lightweight leaves.
“There are five provinces where tobacco is farmed,” says Tembe. “It is KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape, North West, Mpumalanga, as well as Limpopo.”
“Limpopo is most suitable,” he says. “Most tobacco farmers are from Limpopo, the commercial farmers.”
Planting and harvesting tobacco
According to Tembe it takes a while to prepare the soil, so soil preparation starts in July.
Because you don’t sow the tobacco crop in the ground, and rather start from seedlings, planting takes place in the first week of September.
“From the day you plant the seedlings, it takes you 52 days before you start harvesting,” Tembe says.
“The harvesting takes long,” he laughs. If you start your harvest in December, it can last up until April and even until the last week of May. So, it takes about five months for harvesting.
Tobacco is a very labour-intensive crop, according to Tembe.
“Per hectare you need three full-time employees to maintain the crop until harvesting,” he estimates. “When you do harvesting you need six to eight people for that. And more to do the drying at the same time.”
The crop also requires very specific agricultural practices. The fertiliser must be managed very specifically, according to Tembe, otherwise the nicotine content will be impacted and might not meet requirements.
“Best farming practices are critical to make sure that the end product is able to go to the market,” says Tembe. “You must make sure that the end product is the quality product that is needed by the market.”
“After we harvest tobacco we dry [it],” Tembe says. “We call it pre-processing.”
This is when the leaves are pre-processed before going to the processors who process the dried tobacco and sell it to the companies that turns that into cigarettes.
During this process the tobacco is dried and packaged into boxes. These dried leaves are then sent to tobacco processors (Tembe sends his to Limpopo Tobacco Processors in Limpopo).
“They do another processing,” Tembe says. “They assess the quality, compress the leaves again, and take it to British-American Tobacco in Heidelberg where they do the final processing into cigarettes.”
“It has to follow that whole route, and it’s a long route,” he says. “And you cannot supply direct to the market.”
If you want to eliminate the middle-man, you can start a processing unit on your farm, according to Tembe. But this, he says, is expensive and you will need to farm with large quantities of tobacco to make it profitable.
“You need [at least] 30 hectares to be able to sustain the equipment and the electricity you need for the processing plant,” Tembe says.
The market for tobacco
Tembe says it is difficult to enter the market in South Africa, especially since illicit tobacco is so easily imported into South Africa.
“We are left with 40% of our original market,” he says. “It’s very difficult, and very little is being done to stop this illicit trade.”
“The whole tobacco value chain is being challenged,” Tembe says.
It is possible to export tobacco, but it is very difficult, according to Tembe. He says it might be because our tobacco is very expensive due to high labour costs. The tobacco from other countries with cheap labour is sold at much lower prices.
The challenge is to enter the market, warns Tembe.
“It is very difficult, I do not want to lie to you,” he laughs. “So, that is the biggest hurdle you will face.”