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Malawi: Non-smokers hooked on tobacco

Tobacco-dependent Malawi faces a worrying future. New international controls on tobacco threaten the economy as does widespread famine in the area.
Women - a large proportion of the workforce in Malawi

If you've ever smoked a major-brand cigarette, the chances are you've smoked Malawian tobacco. Manufacturers value its texture as an ideal cigarette filler.

As a result, virtually every western cigarette uses a bit of the produce of this small southern African nation in its blend.


Malawi accounts for 140,000 tonnes of the world's annual output of 5.7 million tonnes of tobacco. Its population of 10 million is economically dependent on the crop.

Tobacco earns one of the poorest nations in the world $165m a year, which represents more than two-thirds of its annual foreign revenue. However heavy floods and a population on the brink of famine threaten to reduce these earnings.


In February 2002, Malawi's President Bakili Muluzi declared a state of national emergency. Heavy floods had forced thousands of people from their homes, destroying crops and livestock in their wake.

Rains were hampering the relief effort and as many as three million people were estimated to be at risk of starvation.

Food shortages continue to be critical. Some people, desperate for food, survived on a diet of leaves, roots and berries - some of them poisonous. Maize, the staple crop, is costly.

The government has appealed to donor countries and non-governmental organisations for $21m in food relief.

The UN's World Food Programme (WFP) is already feeding people there and on 25 April launched an emergency appeal to save others.

Western aid however has been slow to arrive as donors are wary because of perceived corruption in the Malawian government. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) blames the government for economic mismanagement.


Seven bishops from Malawi's Roman Catholic Church recently accused Mr Muluzi's government of financial irregularities during the hunger crisis.

In a letter, read out in churches throughout the country, the clerics deplored the high cost of maize which was selling at government-run markets at $13 for a 50kg bag, up from $3.

Click to see more photographs
Tobacco factory

An estimated 75% of the Malawian population is dependent on tobacco farming although only a small proportion smokes.

Some 100,000 tonnes are grown, graded, stored and exported by 1.7 million people.

Another 5 million workers - according to the industry - are indirectly employed in support industries or are family members of tobacco workers. (see photographs)

Women make up a large population of the workforce (more photographs) but children as young as 11 years old work grading the tobacco leaves.


The tobacco industry in Malawi has been severely criticised over its use of child labour.


Click to see more photographs
Child workers are common in Malawi

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions (MCTU) say the local industry risks sanctions if it continues to use under-aged children in farming.

The International Tobacco Growers Association opposes any of its members using child labour.

In September 2001, The Tobacco Association of Malawi recognised that the practice was evil and announced that it had created a task force aimed at eliminating child labour on the farms.

The force will have to examine the issue of poverty as many parents take their children to farms to help them.


Growers in Malawi are worried about the WHO's Framework Convention on Tobacco which aims to be introduced in 2003. This will commit governments to move their economies away from growing tobacco.

Click to see more photographs
New controls may affect their livelihood.
In October 2000, the World Health Organisation urged tougher anti-tobacco policies in Africa, but the Organization of African Unity is worried the drive could undermine political and economic stability if farmers are not given alternative crops.


In Malawi, the question in people's minds is: what else will they grow that will sell so well and be so profitable on the international market?

The answer may be Indian hemp. The plant is a sought-after commodity. It is non-narcotic and is used to manufacture textiles, ropes, paper and cosmetics. In order to substitute tobacco, Indian hemp will need to be legalised.