By Dayo Yusuf
Driving through Migori county in Western Kenya, you cannot help but notice the lush green gardens bursting with colorful fruits and massive vegetables, proof of the fertility of the land.
Standing on his land, 40-year-old Robert Opar, a Kenyan farmer has sad memories of his younger days helping his father on their farm. For many years, they grew tobacco on their three-acre piece of land. This he says did not end well for his father.
‘‘I took my father to hospital after he complained of chest pains. After his diagnosis, the doctor asked me if he was a smoker and I said no, but he chewed tobacco leaves. The doctor told me that it had caused him kidney problems,’’ he told TRT Afrika.
Mr Opar said this was the day he fell out with tobacco farming.
‘‘I decided it was not good for me. I had to quit," he said. His father passed away shortly after that.
Dangers of tobacco farming
Tobacco in general has shown more negative effects than benefits, according to health experts. Smoking tobacco can lead to dangerous respiratory diseases including lung and mouth cancers.
The WHO says growing tobacco in itself has detrimental effects on the health of the farmers who routinely touch and inhale the plant’s toxins.
The crop is considered a high feeder, meaning it completely depletes the land of nutrients.
‘‘Once you grow tobacco, it leaves your land barren," Mr Opar said. ‘’You cannot grow anything on it for at least six months, to let it breathe. You just incur losses,’’ he adds.
Switching to healthier farming
Mr Opar says he has now abandoned tobacco farming for the sake of his family’s health and the income has been more satisfying.
‘‘I am now growing capsicum, watermelon and beans. I had to do a lot of research, but I am happy with my decision.’’
‘‘Sometimes my crops are sold out even before harvesting. I make a lot more money now,’’ he shared.
Kenya was one of the first countries to ratify the legally binding WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and subsequently adopt the Kenya Tobacco Control Act. Both documents stipulate a need for an alternative to tobacco production that protects those whose livelihoods depend on growing it.
Mr Opar, together with some neighboring farmers in his home village, are now part of the Tobacco-Free Farm Initiative, which helps farmers plant high-iron beans as an alternative crop, with UN agencies and government providing training, quality inputs such as seeds and fertilizers, and a ready market for the harvest.
Kenya’s Migori county is one of three where most tobacco farming in Kenya takes place.
Where is tobacco grown in Africa
Globally, tobacco-leaf production reduced significantly between 2012 and 2018. However, exports from African , increased by more than 10%, with East African countries producing 90% of the tobacco farmed in Africa.
The main tobacco leaf growing countries in Africa are Zimbabwe producing 25.9% of Africa’s output. Zambia (16.4%), United Republic of Tanzania (14.4%), Malawi (13.3%) and Mozambique (12.9%).
This year, the World Health Organization is using the theme, "We need food not tobacco," to raise awareness about alternative crop production and marketing opportunities for tobacco farmers and encourage them to grow sustainable, nutritious crops.
Mr Opar says he is only sorry he didn’t abandon tobacco farming soon enough.
‘‘We used to have a forest on our land. Many trees were cut down and used to dry the tobacco leaves. Now you can’t even tell we had trees here,’’ says Mr Opar.
WHO says the harmful effects of the cultivation on the environment are particularly apparent in low- and middle-income countries.
World No Tobacco Day 2023 will serve as an opportunity to mobilize governments and policymakers to support farmers in creating safe spaces for healthier farming to ensure global food security.