Tobacco Farming as Modern Slavery

Tobacco Farming as Modern Slavery

Tobacco farm at Igbo Ijaiye, Oyo State

The British American Tobacco Company in Nigeria has often bragged about its capacity to make multi-millionaires out of tobacco farmers, however, a recent interaction with them on their farms reveals the opposite, Marcus Yemiete writes
The British American Tobacco Company has since 1912 been operating in the country holding 60 per cent of shares in the defunct Nigerian Tobacco Company (NTC)  while the Nigerian government held a 40 per cent stake. By 1978, the capital of Oyo State, Ibadan played host to one of its factories.

However, in 1999, the civilian administration brought a new focus on Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) which led to the incorporation of British American Tobacco Nigeria Limited.

The British American Tobacco Company then built the state-of-the-art 150 million dollar factory in Ibadan, Oyo State. To the uninitiated, it would seem that the firm is out to contribute its quota to the nation’s economy by encouraging farmers over the years to plant tobacco to feed this huge factory just like it had done in the past. The company grants loans to tobacco farmers and other incentives to boost their morale with the assurance that tobacco farming is profitable.

Going by the time it set foot on the Nigerian soil, it is safe to say this is about the second generation of tobacco farmers and if their ordeals are any thing to go by, all may not be well with tobacco farming as

the British American Tobacco Company often portrays to the unsuspecting public. Iseyin, one of the towns known for the cultivation of tobacco has now freed itself from growing the crop as Pa Isaiah Ogundeji, a farmer and also Pastor of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church in the town said it used to be planted there and Ipapo. Ogundeji said the crop is now grown  in Ago Aare, Otu and Igbo Ijaiye. He said he no longer plants tobacco because he thinks the government is not in support of the crop. Further attempts by THISDAY to know why he thought so met a brickwall.

At Okaka, THISDAY was able to access a tobacco nursery which also had a dilapidated curing barn belonging to the defunct Nigerian Tobacco company (NTC). The nursery which is located behind the barn had tobacco plants on a large expanse of land with a well serving as the only source of water for the nursery. All attempts by THISDAY to meet with the owner of the nursery proved abortive but a security man who pleaded anonymity said he is paid N20,000 a month to look after the British American Tobacco Company Nigeria (BATN) materials and supply store to ward off prying eyes. At that point, a BATN official came in and asked THISDAY to stay away.

The question is, if BATN claims tobacco farming is profitable and has nothing to hide, why does it refuse to allow ordinary interview with an employee? In Otu, at yet another farm, Matthew Ayantokun, popularly called Aro, whose father incidentally was formerly an instructor, was able to disclose to THISDAY how he runs his farm and the BATN  factor. “I am a graduate and served in Kaduna State and I started planting last year,” Ayantokun said.

He said the tobacco seedling are put in a nursery and nursed for about 60 days before transplanting to the field. The plant is ready for harvest after three months after which curing takes place for 8 days with an interval of same before harvesting the next batch. When asked how does he know the plants are ready for harvest, he replied: “The leaves turn yellow.”

THISDAY further inquired about the impact of BATN on his farm as well as the grant given to him. “BATN gives me seedling and I use 3 bags of NPK 18 at every given time I plant. BATN gives them to me at the rate of N7,100 per bag. Last year, I was also granted a rocket barn at the rate of N300,000. Now for a grassroots farmer to be talking about such huge sums, you would be quick to assume he is making truck loads of money. Far from that, if you do the maths, all farmers sell to BATN and the leaves are sold after curing in the barn. All leaves are graded by the BATN with best grade sold for between N250 to N260 per kg while the lowest grade goes for as low as N180 per kg,” Ayantokun said.

Now, Ayantokun cultivates four hectares of Land requiring at every planting period, 20 labourers whom he pays N400 per day (the labourers on ground at as the time of reporting were all children). He added that he made N1.5 Million last year and from the proceeds built a house and bought a motorcycle. A quick glance his demeanour suggested that he had never seen a million naira.

The next farmer was keen to speak to THISDAY, but the same BATN official trailed us and threatened fire and brimstone if THISDAY did not stop interviewing the farmers in the village. This raised the issue of what BATN is hiding by chasing out reporters ?

Igbo Ijaiye within the same local government was THISDAY’s next port of call. A man in his early forties by name, Oluwasegun Sangobode who claims to be a tobacco farmer at first, refused the request for an interview citing the fact that the farmers have a chairman in the locality and he is the only one qualified to speak to the press. Attempts to get the chairman was futile, but he was later contacted on phone by Sangobode whereupon  he authorized Sangobode to speak to us.

“I am an indigene of Igbo Ijaiye and also a tobacco farmer as well as a driver. I do not practice tobacco farming seriously because it is very strenuous. I prefer driving though I have been cultivating tobacco for the sixth year in a row,” Sangobode said.
He said it would be better if the government could assist them. He stated that BATN could give

loans to farmers as much as their muscle could take adding that the firm orders fertilizer for farmers and those loans obtained are used to pay labourers, who work up to harvesting time. When THISDAY asked Sangobode about his financial challenges, he was quick to say that the money gotten from tobacco is not enough but because he lacked alternatives, he had to farm and added that he does not want to steal.

Asked to state how the farmers pay back their loans, Sangobode had this to say: “All forms of loans monetary and material (seedlings, fertilizer, rocket barns etc.) are paid back in tobacco leaves”.

The response prompted the question on how much he makes in a year after paying all the loans? He said: “If the year is good and my product is worth around a million naira, after all loans are repaid I will be left with about N300,000 for a year’s work of tilling, toiling, nurturing and sprinkling. In a year that takes a downturn, sometimes, I do not realise any money and if the loan is not fully repaid what is accrued would be carried over into the next year.”

While THISDAY was still chatting Sangobode, another farmer who also doubles as a civil servant and teacher came with seedlings to plant on his farm and added that BATN was putting them in modern slavery and pleaded for government intervention as BATN reaped bountifully on their sweat

and that the farmers have little or nothing to show for their hard work. Igbo Ijaiye, which is home to quite a number of farmers including a septuagenarian in the stature of Gabriel Ayantokun said he does not plant anymore because he is old. He also stated that his children that stopped him have taken over the planting.

Another farmer who pleaded anonymity said that he no longer plants because of the adverse effects on his health causing him to have a hunch back and the lamented about their finances from years of toiling as tobacco farmers.

THISDAY’s observations revealed that BATN has ensured that generations of farmers do not to speak to journalists or anyone looking for loopholes in their modus operandi. They have been thoroughly sensitized not to speak out against any injustices in their dealings with BATN. Some instructors go around farmlands monitoring the farmers like bloodhounds and are quick to put them in their place if they go astray. A little scuffle with a BATN instructor and Mathew at Otu made the point very glaring.

The British American Tobacco Company Nigeria has deceived the farmers for far too long creating the impression that they are giving them the chance to taste opulence which with a glance at the farmers, a neutral observer would conclude that it as a façade.

In the quintessence of calm, the BATN grants loans to these unsuspecting farmers with the aim of carting away most of their products as they are the ones who grade the leaves and can tilt results in their favour. As a result of this, the farmers use children (including theirs) to work on their farmlands for meager sums so as to reduce expenses.

Tobacco farmers live in the worst houses, look haggard and want an alternative choice of business because they suspect that BATN has ulterior motives and as such are crying out to the government for intervention. The monopolistic nature of the business that BATN enjoys, is the bedrock of the inhumane treatment meted out to the farmers.

Thus, the only plus these farmers see is that tobacco wards of snakes and cattle do not eat it, but at close contact, they prefer to cultivate cassava or maize if the government can help them out. In other words, the case of the farmers and BATN is like the devil giving you money and asking for your child in return.