By Livingstone Marufu
In an unprecedented move, farmer representative bodies are combining efforts to bring to book tobacco contracting firms that are allegedly prejudicing tobacco farmers of millions of dollars, The Herald Business has learnt.
This comes after thousands of independent tobacco farmers were unwittingly registered by corrupt merchants, thereby forcing them to sell their tobacco to them for a pittance, which they then resell at a huge profit.
The Zimbabwe Farmers Union (ZFU), Zimbabwe Commercial Farmers Union (ZCFU), Zimbabwe National Farmers’ Union (ZNFU) and Zimbabwe Progressive Tobacco Farmers Union (ZPFU) have engaged lawyers to investigate and make a case against the alleged perpetrators.
Farmers’ organisations are headed by ZFU through its executive director, Paul Zakariya.
Zakariya told this publication that as soon as the lawyers’ preliminary investigations are complete, the case will be in the courts as early as next week.
“We have roped in lawyers to do the actual digging for us so that we can get to the bottom of the matter and preliminary investigations show that indeed farmers were prejudiced but the value of the prejudice is not yet known.
“We have established a number of contractors who are involved in these misconducts and we have a strong case against them. We will see how it goes.
“If the courts truly find the contractors guilty they will pay for all the money they have prejudiced the farmers together with expenses that the farmers incurred during the time they delivered their crop.
“We are happy that whatever happens between us and the contractors, since contractors’ game has been exposed and they won’t do it in future,” said Zakariya.
Normally, a legitimate contractor provides inputs under a pre-season agreement to a farmer and in return will pay that farmer the average auction price for the quality and type of tobacco delivered, minus the cost of the inputs.
Auctions, although dealing with a minority of the crop, thus set the market price
The problem comes when some contractors do not follow this model.
It has emerged that some contractors have been adding tobacco producers to their list of contract farmers without the grower’s knowledge and consent.
Their list of contracted growers has been growing even after the selling season had started.
This unethical practice has resulted in farmers being held up at auction floors, unable to sell their tobacco as they are required by the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) to get a letter from the contractors to be removed from that contract list.
In desperation, some farmers end up selling to the contractors to avoid the frustration of de-contracting.
Meanwhile, TIMB chief executive Dr Andrew Matibiri said the regulatory body has heard the farmers’ organisations’ concerns and was also investigating the case to ensure that won’t happen in future.
“We have heard the concerns of the farmers and we are investigating the matter ourselves to see if the claims are true so that we can act accordingly.
“Going forward, we are speeding up the process of decontracting to ensure that farmers don’t spend much time in queues trying to clear these mishaps,” he said.
Most of the fracas has been happening at TSF where most of these contractors are housed.
TSL head of agriculture cluster Peter Mujaya said investigations are still underway to establish what is really happening at these floors.
“Though we have also intensified our efforts to make farmers aware of the required information and documentation needed before they can sell at the auction floor as per TIMB regulations and how they can prevent farmers from falling prey to unscrupulous practices, we are also coming up with our own findings soon and appropriate action would be taken accordingly.”
Government has already set aside $70 million dollars to support small scale independent farmers this year as it seeks to keep the auction marketing system alive.
A collapse of the auction system could lead to massive price manipulation through contract sales.