Zimbabwe’s golden leaf

The scent of dried tobacco permeates the car as we drive into Harare’s industrial area. In a spread-out suburb of the city, tobacco farmers compete to sell top-quality leaf, trucked in from the far reaches of Zim.

Tobacco leaves are some of Zimbabwe’s most precious cargo. While vendors set up their stalls outside — selling everything from belt buckles to baked goods — farmers gather on the auction floor for a day of negotiation and money-making.

In the 1990s, Zim was a chief exporter for top-quality tobacco worldwide. At its peak, it accounted for more than 50 per cent of Zim’s total agricultural exports, with export earnings between US$270 and $593 million. But a decade of agricultural turmoil resulted in plummeting output. Now, the industry is in a state of revival.

Boost Africa is one of Harare’s smaller auction sites. A thin layer of dust covers everything in sight, while buyers mull about to inspect dried bails of tobacco.

Boost Africa's auction floor in Harare.
Boost Africa’s auction floor in Harare.

The white-washed warehouse is packed wall-to-wall with bails, which will sell from anywhere between US$1.50 to $5 per kilogram (according to local farmers). Each bail weighs an average of 100 kg.

Getting a good price for your product depends on who you know. Nepotism rules business in this country. One farmer says he was able to double the buying price for his crop, just by linking up with the right crowd.

A word of warning on the auction floor — men holding large metal dollies race down the aisles to collect what has been sold. For Sam, it was a close call when one of these hit her from behind, but luckily it ended in entertainment rather than injury.

It’s encouraging to see the hustle and bustle of the market place, showing the slow recovery of a once robust industry, but it’s a different story outside the auction house.

The street is lined with hundreds of trucks, charged with transporting bails of tobacco from farms all over Zim to the auction floor. Some farmers have driven more than 1,000 kilometres to bring in produce, only to join an unending queue. They will sleep overnight in their trucks, sometimes for days, in order to bring their produce onto the floor.

The beginning of the line of trucks, transporting tobacco from all over Zim.
The beginning of the line of trucks, transporting tobacco from all over Zim.

While the industry is dominated by men, Zim’s newspapers publish occasional stories about women who are breaking into this lucrative trade.

Once farmers make their sales, they carry wads of cash out into the street—many of them will ask friends to pick them up from the area, all too aware of the risk of theft.

Local farmers waiting outside the auction floor for their turn to trade.
Local farmers waiting outside the auction floor for their turn to trade.

For now, Zim’s tobacco farmers are enjoying an era of revitalization, despite global tobacco control and fluctuating demand for the product. And while many former tobacco farms are now growing a host of other crops for diversification, the golden leaf is still Zim’s agricultural mainstay.

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