89-year-old Nokamile Mazosiwe farms with tobacco in Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape. Photo: Kholo Mazosiwe
89-year-old Nokamile Mazosiwe farms with tobacco in Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape. Photo: Kholo Mazosiwe

Every morning the soon to be 90-year-old tobacco farmer Nokamile Mazosiwe steps barefoot onto the piece of land she nurtures in Ngcobo in the Eastern Cape. To her it’s much more than just six hectares of land in a town named after “a green place next to a stream”. It is the land where, she says, she not only “ukusinda” (“survives”), but also “ukunikeza” (“provides”).

Her farm is about as big as six rugby fields – a tiny space when compared to the land occupied by some of the other small-scale farmers in the region. To Manjuza, as she is affectionately known by villagers, her land is the source of life that helped her to create a better tomorrow for her 10 children and ever growing grandchildren.

“Ndiyakuthanda ukufuya kodwa intliziyo yam isekhaya,” she says about her 33-year career in agriculture. Literally translated from isiXhosa, the predominant language in the Eastern Cape, this means, “Farming might have caught my eye, but my family has stolen my heart.”

Nokamile Mazosiwe loves cultivating potatoes and chillies, but tobacco farming is her first love. Photo: Kholo Mazosiwe

Mazosiwe adds, “Although most of my children are on their own journeys. Some of them come by on weekends to help me do the things my body doesn’t allow me anymore.”

However, she continues to toil with love, enjoying the privilege of feeling the soil beneath her feet and the daily dance of the sun on her skin. Mazosiwe says farming is all she knows. “You’ll find all kinds of vegetables on my farm. I love cultivating potatoes and chilies, but my favourite has to be the tobacco plants.”

When she started growing tobacco, she was the only one in the town doing it. She had to learn the art of tobacco farming, and soon realized that her love for farming was not enough. Quickly, she had to learn the tricks and processes involving one of the oldest commercially grown crops. Of course, it was also much easier when she was younger to carefully manage the tiny tobacco seeds, not much larger than a pin prick.

As a true agripreneur, Mazosiwe took what she loved and changed not only her own life, but the lives of those around her. The village is full of her praise, and they admire her dedication. She plants her own trees with her wrinkled hands, and waters them on a very strict schedule to grow to their full potential. Furthermore, she travels to and from town to deliver her produce.

“Farming every day lightened a heavy financial burden for me,” exclaims Mazosiwe, who used to cook big dinners for her family. These days, her meager harvests are no longer enough to cook for many, a gift of life she dearly misses. “There is not a day that goes by that I don’t miss cooking for a family of more than 10 people. With something as tiny as a tobacco seed, you can change your entire future. With a little you can do a lot.”

With the tiny profits made throughout the year, she could also educate and look after her children. She had always known that her children or grandchildren wouldn’t necessarily be inspired to also pursue an agricultural career, but has kept the faith that at least one would follow in her footsteps.

Mazosiwe says stepping barefoot out onto her land every morning has become her favourite thing to do.
Mazosiwe says stepping barefoot out onto her land every morning has become her favourite thing to do. Photo: Kholo Mazosiwe

After hinting for 33 years, one of her grandchildren, Busi Mazosiwe, started studying agriculture at Fort Cox College of Agriculture and Forestry in King Williams Town – hoping to one day walk in Mazosiwe’s footsteps.

Mazosiwe has no intention of retiring. She has known from a young age that her agricultural journey will not lead to riches. After more than three decades on the farm, she is however pleased to also reap the harvest of knowledge, love and passion.

Her grandson Kholo Mazosiwe says: “I’m proud to call her my grandmother, because she’s a go-getter and it has rubbed off on all of us.”

She says, “Stepping out onto my land, my pride and joy, every morning has become my favourite thing to do. The fact that I can now live off it is an added bonus. It’s just heartbreaking that the little income I get from it could be taken away from me at any time (due to a steady decline in South African and international tobacco production).”

SA only has about 330 tobacco farmers left

The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa estimates that there are 181 commercial and 155 small-scale tobacco farmers, including Mazosiwe. Together, the 336 farmers employ up to 10 000 agri-workers, with more than 30 000 people in deep rural areas depending on them. The country’s annual tobacco crop is about 15 million kilograms, with the bulk of the tobacco used for manufacturing tobacco products for local consumption in SA, and some being exported as well.
The game is possibly about change, however, for all commercial and small-scale farmers in South Africa. British American Tobacco South Africa (Batsa) has been hit hard by the illicit cigarette trade. Whilst they are still committed to purchasing tobacco from these farmers, their company has written to Limpopo Tobacco Processors (LTP) to inform them that should sales volumes fall below 10 billion cigarette sticks a year, they will have to consider sourcing tobacco from outside South Africa. Batsa says there is major cause for concern because in 2018 the volume sold was 11.5 billion cigarette sticks, down from 15.2 billion in 2016.
Tobacco excise revenue collection has also dropped by R1.9 billion in just two years – a massive blow to between 8 000 and 10 000 agri-workers whose jobs are now on the line. Sales of illicit cigarettes by manufacturers who evade excise duty is undercutting the market.

Is it hard to grow tobacco?

According to the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishers, so-called flue-cured tobacco (a type of cigarette tobacco) is produced in parts of Mpumalanga, Limpopo and North West. Air-cured tobacco (typically low in sugar, but with a high nicotine content) is produced in parts of the Eastern Cape, Western Cape, Limpopo and North West. Air-cured tobacco is hung in well-ventilated barns and allowed to dry for a period of up to eight weeks.
Mazosiwe tying up a blanket filled with her tobacco leaves to ferment in the sun. Photo: Kholo Mazosiwe
Mazosiwe tying up a blanket filled with her tobacco leaves to ferment in the sun. Photo: Kholo Mazosiwe
The seed of a tobacco plant is tiny, with 28 grams easily equating to about 300 000 seeds. The seeds are planted, and then grow into small trees which have to be watered daily. The leaves on the trees will then grow bigger and thicker. When the leaves have reached their full size, they are then picked and stacked on a blanket.
After the leaves have been cleaned and heaped up, they are tied up in the blanket and left in the sun for a good day and a half to ferment. The colour of the leaves will change from bright green to a much darker green, leaning towards black. These fermented leaves are then packaged into small plastic bags and sold to the product distributor in its rawest form. This natural product is believed to also heal pain, and people in rural areas are often seen chewing on tobacco leaves to get rid of a toothache.
Seeing as the plant takes about two months to grow to its full size, this process is repeated every third month. Mass production is therefore important as small-scale farmers have to fill at least one black bag full of tobacco to make enough money to last until the next three-month cycle. By selling their tobacco at just R20 per packet, small-scale farmers typically walk away with a profit of R900 which then has to last for up to three months.