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Tobacco: A Blessing and a Poison for Kenya’s Women Farmers

For many of Kenya’s small farmers, growing tobacco is the only thing that makes economic sense. But cultivating the crop comes with a host of dangers for them and their families.

Written by Sophie Mbugua Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Junicia Kagendo ties bundles of dried tobacco at her farm in Kurene, Eastern Kenya. Sophie Mbugua

KURENE, Kenya – For more than 15 years, Junicia Kagendo has cultivated tobacco, selling it to cigarette manufacturing companies. But tobacco, which brings her financial security that no other crop could, is putting her and her family in danger.

The 38 year-old mother of three from Kurene village in Eastern Kenya is among an estimated 55,000 small-scale farmers in Kenya growing tobacco as their main livelihood.

In Kenya, tobacco is cultivated for cigarette giants British American Tobacco (BAT) and Mastermind. “We operate through contractual arrangements with tobacco leaf-buying cigarette companies,” Kagendo says.

“Within these contracts, they supply the farm inputs like fertilizer, herbicides and seeds, and advise us on good agricultural practices. The input costs are deducted from the sale of the tobacco leaf once the market opens.”

Kagendo farms tobacco once a year. Contracts are awarded in August, and harvesting takes place from December to April.

“With a contract, farmers do not have to worry about the farm input, and the market is guaranteed,” she says.

For the most recent cycle, she produced 1,870 lbs (850kg) of tobacco. Of this, 1,527 lbs (693 kg) were sold to Mastermind at $1.90 per kilo, and 346 lbs (157 kg) sold to a middleman at $1.80.

Over the years, she has saved enough to buy a cow, which allows her to provide proper nutrition for her three children. Her tobacco proceeds also help her pay their school fees.

Kagendo and her husband have also invested the tobacco proceeds into buying goats and maize that they sell on for profit.

“It is the only cash crop we have,” she says of tobacco. “Maize and beans do not produce better yields. The prices fluctuate, and the rains are unreliable.”

Profit at a Cost

Kagendo says despite the fact that tobacco prices have remained constant for nearly two decades, selling on a contract has earned her extra bonuses. She earns extra for grading and folding the leaves by hand.

“We earn an extra 10 cents per kilogram as a bonus through sorting and tying it into 1kg bundles, and transporting them to the designated pickup areas,” she says.

But this is a dangerous practice. The World Health Organization (WHOwarns that nicotine absorbed through the skin from handling wet tobacco leaves exposes farmers to “green tobacco sickness.” Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, headache, muscle weakness and dizziness.

“I plant it just because it brings me money,” Kagendo says. “Otherwise, the smoke during curing is too toxic, and it burns.” The smoking area is next to the family home, exposing her children to the fumes.

Kagendo checks the temperature of her kiln, for smoking tobacco. (Sophie Mbugua)

Phillip Kimundu is a member of a committee that records and represents farmers’ grievances to Mastermind. He says the companies do not cater for medical issues raised by the farmers.

“The pesticides are very harsh,” he says, adding that his observations from Kurene show that tobacco is taking its toll. “The level of cancer, tuberculosis, coughing among children aged three and below, and breathing-problem cases among tobacco farmers are high.”

One study found that 40% of Kenyan tobacco workers surveyed had reported symptoms of pesticide poisoning, which include vertigo, nausea, anxiety, vomiting, diarrhea and asthma-like tightness of the chest.

The demand for firewood required to dry the tobacco also has an environmental impact on the region, leading to widespread deforestation and degraded land quality, making farms more susceptible to the effects of climate change.

David Kaaria, a service provider with Mastermind, told News Deeply that farmers are trained on good agronomic practices, tree planting and safety while handling tobacco and pesticides.

He notes that the company provides tree seedlings to address the high deforestation levels in the village, which are caused by the high demand of firewood used for curing tobacco.

“We provide about 150-200 Grevillea and Acacia tree species per farmer,” he says. “Though the seedling survival rates stands at 70-80 percent, they are not preferred by many farmers because, despite their ability to grow faster, they are not suitable for timber.”

About 100-140kg of fresh leaves take six days to dry over the fire, and Kagendo’s farm has no trees mature enough to be used as firewood. For the 2016-2017 season, Kagendo bought nearly $100 worth of wood from her neighbors. Among the 150 seedlings she was supplied by Mastermind, about 50 survived.

An Obligation to Change

Despite the industry contributing significantly to government revenue through taxation, tobacco farming in Kenya is classified as a non-scheduled crop. This means the Ministry of Agriculture does not allocate development funds to tobacco farmers.

Kenya is party to the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a global health treaty ratified by 180 countries that obliges members to implement comprehensive tobacco control laws. Article 17 and 18 of the treaty compel governments to find an alternative livelihood for smallholder tobacco farmers such as Kagendo.

But until that happens, she says she will keep growing the crop. She says if she wants to educate her children, she has no choice.

“I have no other cash crop to fall back on; my children need to eat and go to school. What else can I do?”

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