By Odhiambo Opundo and Fred Okoth
Apart from a top gold producer, Migori County leads in tobacco production with 16,000 tonnes out of 22,000 tonnes of annual national production.
But with this more than 70 per cent in production, over 20,000 farmers contracted to different tobacco companies in the region have continued to wallow in poverty.
Poor working environment and peanut payments has greatly affecting the poor working conditions of cramers.
Nicholas Okinyi, a farmer for over 8years from Wiga Ward in Suna West Constituency explains that the tobacco companies fail to pay them good money despite having spent nine months to produce the crop.
“The Alliance one and BAT which are the major tobacco companies are underpaying us, we use a lot of energy and time to see their companies survive in this region but they have failed to recognize our efforts.” said Okinyi
Currently the tobacco farmers are paid sh220 as the highest payment for the best grade which the farmers complain is very difficult to get with majority getting an average price of Sh78 per kilogram.
The crop also encourages child labor as less than 18 years are forced by their guardians to assist them in the production. This according to the county director for labor Francis Otieno Kodiya who say that over 50 per cent of the duties performed on tobacco plantation are done by children.
“We seriously have problem with the tobacco farming and gold mining zones as they are the key areas which expose children to indulge in the hectic duties” said Kodiya
According to Kuria West region Divisional leaf manager, Valentine Ogongo, tobacco farming begins at nursery where it takes three months before it is transferred to the bed, he adds that in the seed bed the product takes another two to three months before they start plucking the leaves.
The plant is then plucked from a period of three months before the farmer rests for the next season.
“For quality tobacco production, a farmer should prepare adequately for three months in nursery that includes land preparation before it’s transplanted. Another three months will mature the plant while additional three months is sued to cure,” said Ogongo during a consultative forum between the county government ,stake holders and tobacco company owners.
Following the uncalled for suffering facing the farmers, the Migori county government through Governor Zachary Okoth Obado is currently laying down rules to protect farmers and promote tobacco production to benefit farmers in the region.
This has been seen through different forums that have been organized by the county government to bring to board all the tobacco companies and has given farmers hope in growing the product as Mastermind which has been on the worst for mistreating and under paying farmers was stopped from conducting business in the county.
The company was accused of poaching tobacco from farmers contracted to other companies and that the company delay farmers’ payments for over two years a nuisance that forced the county government through the deputy governor Nelson Mahanga to send home the company.
“We cannot allow the company to continue mistreating farmers we therefore resolve to disown their license to trade in Migori County because the license is meant to enable them execute legal business as well as services but they have failed to do so” said Mahanga
Besides the mastermind’s paddle, the other two companies, Alliance one and British American Tobacco (B.A.T) have also been put on notice over poor payment to their contracted farmers.
Revealing this to one of the radio stations in the county, the governor Obado said that they are lobbying with an international company that will pay farmers well as the current companies are rough up to the farmers .
He said that the company will process tobacco in the region unlike other companies which transports the product from the county to Thika for processing, the step which is seen as a way of creating employment to over 3000 workers thereby reducing unemployment which is acute problem in the county .
“We will only work with the company that is ready to pay our farmers well and process tobacco in the county and that is why my government is soon hosting another international company which is willing to boost the living standards of our farmers” said Obado
The tobacco menace has also incited the reaction of the meteorologists who blame the plantation for unpredicted weather conditions in the county.
According to a retired meteorologist Mr. Abade Milewa, , a lot of trees are cut down during the currying process which destroys ozone layer leading to drought and floods in case of heavy down pour.
Milewa adds that through the deforestation process trees to attract rain are not available making food crop farmers fail to predict good planting time hence food insecurity.
He suggests for other alternative cash crops that will not hinder the environment. “We do not in long term need this tobacco crop in the county because farmers keep on cutting trees and the tobacco companies in the region have not taken seriously forestation as a way of conserving our environment and saving lives of majority”. Asserted Milewa
The suggestion has started receiving support from the County government with the county executive member for environment and disaster management Dr. Polycarp Ating’a taking through his docket taking the lead in planting over 3M trees along river banks, public schools and road sides to see forest cover is restored in the area.
If the county government continues to execute the physical duties then the county will achieve its goals as farming is the backbone of the economic development in the county.