Tobacco output and accompanying trade receipts have been on a steady rise since 2009.
This year alone, the country is projected to produce 170 million kilogrammes of high-quality tobacco worth an estimated USD300 million dollars making Zimbabwe one of the key producers of the 'golden leaf' in the world.
While there is concerted global action on banning tobacco, particularly in the West where health and environmental issues have assumed a higher profile in recent years, demand for tobacco remains bullish in the East buoyed by a fast-modernising China.
The continued growth of a huge middle class in China means that demand for tobacco will remain strong with positive spin-offs for Zimbabwe's well-established tobacco industry. Indeed, China has emerged as a major buyer of Zimbabwe's tobacco over the last couple of years.
China has shifted roles from being an ordinary buyer to a strategic partner in the value-chain process of the tobacco industry in Zimbabwe.
Leveraging on strong bilateral agreements with the Zim-babwean government, Chinese companies have in recent years established contract schemes in various parts of the country for tobacco farming.
In some instances, Chinese companies are involved in primary tobacco farming at various farms in the country.
Tobacco growing contract schemes are not unique to Zimbabwe's tobacco industry and have been in place for a long time but used to largely benefit the former white farmers. In contrast, these schemes are now available to the new black farmers and have largely been responsible for the interest in the crop witnessed in the post-land reform era.
Notwithstanding this, some new farmers have expressed concern at these contract schemes alledging that they lack transparency and engender exploitation of the new farmer. Consequently, some farmers are no longer interested in the schemes and have called for increased government support to ensure that new farmers are able to access funding and are not ripped by unscrupulous middle men.
In reality though, such calls are misplaced as the new farmers have been beneficiaries of huge amounts of money and inputs availed by government under the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe's quasi-fiscal agricultural support programmes between 2004 and 2008.
Despite the resilience of the country's tobacco industry in the face of a decade-long economic crisis, targeted economic sanctions and hiatus in the agricultural sector occasioned by the land reform programme, the industry remains buffeted by a number of challenges and these came under the spotlight at the recently held Zimbabwe Tobacco Association Congress.
These challenges largely focus on the need for heightened compliance in the sector, particularly to the Framework Conv-ention for Tobacco Control which Zimbabwe has not yet ratified.
There is an urgent need for the country to review its tobacco production architecture to ensure that it conforms to current international standards in the production and management of tobacco. One of these standards relate to the non-use of child labour in tobacco farming.
While Zimbabwe has ratified the International Labour Organ-ization (ILO) conventions abolishing worst forms of child labour (convention number 182) and setting the minimum age for admission to employment (convention number 132) and has affirmed this in the principal Labour R-elations Act (Cha-pter 28:01), child labour remains rampant in the agricultural sector and the ZTA Congress was clear on the need to take immediate corrective action.
The ZTA immediate past president Kevin Cooke was unequivocal on the issue.
"As for child labour, we are very much in the spotlight in this area and need urgently to address, especially in the small scale sector, the use of child labour".
While there are no readily available statistics on the magnitude of the problem, the fact that the ZTA has identified it as one of the key challenges requiring a resolution is indicative of a growing problem in the sector.
Child labour may be defined as employment of persons below the age of thirteen (13) ye-ars but would also extend to all persons below eigh-teen (18) years with the exception of those above fifteen years who are emp-loyed as apprentic-es.
Historically, ch-ild labour use has been common in the former large-scale commercial farms and tea plantations in the Eastern Highlands which saw these areas experiencing low levels of education among children.
Progressive government policies in education later altered this as the farm owners were forced to build proper schools for children of their farmworkers.
However, the land redistribution programme has created new communities and new challenges.
Former farm-workers have been displaced, creating labour shortages in the new farming communities.
The high cost of casual labour in Zimbabwe has meant that farmers cannot attract labour, forcing them to rely on their families for labour thereby spawning child labour use. Tobacco farming is labour intensive and new farmers cannot afford the high labour costs and have to do all they can to cut on labour costs if they are to remain competitive.
One option is to mechanise tobacco farming so that it relies less on casual labour.
The use of child labour in tobacco farming in Zimbabwe is in contravention of ILO statutes, the labour laws of this country and the international Framework Convention for Tobacco Control and fly in the face of government's solid track record in improving the material condition of children.
Only a fortnight ago, children gathered in Harare to observe the Day of the African Child and participate in the 19th Junior Parliament whose theme was: 'All together for urgent action in favour of children living in the street'.
It is important that urgent action be taken to remove children from tobacco farms so that they do not miss on their education which was correctly identified by President Mugabe as key to youth empowerment.
It is hoped that the current ZTA leadership will move with speed in achieving compliance as far as non-use of child labour is concerned.
Source: Financial Gazette (Harare, Zimbabwe)