By Elita Chikwati
It is just before 0730 and farmers are milling around Premier Tobacco Auction Floors along Affirmative Drive in the Willowvale industrial area, making idle talk while employees are running around preparing for the start of the day’s sales.
Suddenly a female voice punctuates the air and focus shifts in the direction of the voice. It’s the voice of Grace Rubaba, the starter, signalling the start of the day’s sales after leading a team of buyers onto the auction floors
Her voice is followed by another female voice of Nomsa Muchinguri, the auctioneer, as buyers get down to the business of the day.
This has become a familiar feature at the PTF since the beginning of the tobacco selling season in March.
The female pair has taken the tobacco industry by storm after managing to break the barriers into the male-dominated field. They are the first crop of female starters and auctioneers in the tobacco industry.
Two other trainees are already following in their footsteps. For Rubaba, who holds a degree in Agriculture and working towards her master’s degree, the shift from being a sales floor manager to her new role came naturally and was a no brainer.
“This is the highest position in the industry and everyone aspires to reach the highest position in their field. So when the chance came I did not think twice, I took it,” she said.
Rubaba, who has been in the tobacco industry for some years, says it took her six years to get to the highest job in the industry.
She said she started off as a trainee and gained experience in tobacco by being attached to the Tobacco Research Board after which she had stints in various positions on the tobacco floors.
“This experience helped me to gain an understanding of how the crop is produced, processed and sold — so it was easy to fit into my new role as a starter,” she said.
The auctioneering bit, she said, was a bit challenging because it requires a lot of practice.
“To be an auctioneer you need to have your own chant and rhythm. And you develop it overtime. I started off by recording other auctioneers and listening to what they were saying. I mastered the rhythms of their chants before I started developing my own and recording myself. I sometimes practiced at home. When I started to do it officially, I gained confidence.
“I do not only sell the tobacco but I do so in style using a specific rhythm, which I continue to perfect,” she said.
Most people tend to look down upon women as people who cannot properly execute jobs that have been the preserve of men and if a women tries to break into that domain, she may meet negative reaction from the males and even from fellow women.
But this was not the case with Rubaba and Muchinguri.
When they came onto the auction floor they were encouraged by their male counterparts and some farmers.
“I was actually surprised by the response from fellow male auctioneers and buyers who encouraged me and this also boosted my confidence. Most farmers welcomed the development. Women are generally viewed as soft-hearted people and farmers expected that the prices were also going to firm since the starter was a women,” she said
Rubaba’s typical day starts with her assessing the volumes of tobacco on the floor, laying of the bales and samples and checking if there are enough buyers to conduct a sale
“I start my day at 0700 hours. Sometime there are disputes with buyers here and there. I also assess if the farmers are happy with the prices being offered by buyers.
“Most of the time I finish at 2pm. Being a starter is not too demanding and time consuming. It is a job that any woman can do, you can even multi task,” she said.
“For one to be a starter, you need the voice, skills, chant and courage but experience is the best teacher.”
For Muchinguri the shift to starter and auctioneer was also a natural choice and she has no regrets over the decision.
“I started as a trainee, working as a grower’s representative. I chose to be a starter because I used to see it being done by men only. It was a challenge to us and we wanted to show people that we can also do it.
“At first, I made some mistakes but my colleagues encouraged and corrected me. So far I have no regrets.
“I started training as a starter and auctioneer last season and now I am on the floor doing the work. I hope to become a buyer one day,” she said.
One of the trainees, Miss Agatha Nyambayo, said she had been working at the floors for the past three years and was motivated by Rubaba and Muchinguri.
“I was inspired by Rubaba and Muchinguri. I just said to myself if other women can do it, then why can’t I,” she said.
Mrs Sibongile Pangara, a Mvurwi farmer, said she was inspired to see female starts and auctioneers at the PTF.
“This is encouraging to us women. We have been known as people who are weak and cannot perform. I am happy that I produced a crop which was being sold by other women. We want women to be present in the whole tobacco value chain.
“It is now time for us women to break into the once male dominated professions. I believe women can also do what men can do. Most of the growers are female although some may sell the crop using their husbands.
PTF marketing manager, Mrs Hildah Matanga said it was the company’s policy to promote gender equality.
“We are the first auction floor to break male domination. We have broken the jinx in the tobacco industry.
“We have one starter, auctioneer and two trainees. These ladies have been accepted by buyers and farmers have also expressed confidence in time.
“Upgrading women is part of our plan to empower them. We already have trainees following in the footsteps of the trailblazer. It contributes to the emancipation of women.
“We have introduced a softer perspective to issues, which men do not have. We have managed to create a balance in terms of decision-making.”
“We have one starter, auctioneer and two trainees. These ladies have been accepted by buyers and farmers have also expressed confidence in time. Upgrading women is part of our plan to empower them. We already have trainees following in the footsteps of the trailblazer. It contributes to the emancipation of women.”