The proposed tobacco plantation in Namibia’s Zambezi Region has generated contrasting opinions raising potential benefits, issues and concerns. The implementation of the project has divided various constituencies of society.
Of particular interest is the divisions across the social and business divide from the ordinary community members to organisations like the Namibia Consumer Trust, to the highest political decision organ of the state, Cabinet. The Zambezi regional land board is also reported to have not approved the tobacco growing, citing ‘environmental and health reasons’. Traditional authorities and some community members like Affirmative Reposition (AR) have totally objected the notion of growing tobacco in Namibia.
Health minister Bernard Esau publicly objected the project, saying ”no amount of money can be worthy even a single human life”.
Alternative uses of tobacco other than smoking
When a tobacco plantation is mentioned, one most likely associates it with production of cigarettes, cigars, shisha and potentially cancer. But below are other uses that can help Namibia industrialise and create sustainable employment through various value chain activities.
In gardening, tobacco is used as an insect repellent by soaking a small amount of tobacco in water overnight. The nicotine released in the water will create an all-purpose insect repellent. Aphids, which infect plants, can also be controlled by blending soil with tobacco. In gardening use, spraying tobacco dust on peach trees will prevent the tree borer from infesting them. The leaf rollers, garden centipede, spiders, gophers and moles also destroy plants and tobacco can be used to get rid of them by spraying the tobacco dust.
Some traditional medicines use tobacco as a pain reliever for ear aches, toothaches, skin rashes, eczema, rheumatism, rattlesnake and insect bites, colds and as a poultice by simply crushing the leaves to place on the affected area. It is also used traditionally to treat mental illnesses, alzheimer and dementia. It can also be used as a toothpaste.
Biotechnology research applications
Tobacco plant is now used as a model plant in genetic engineering research because of the genome, easy propagation, biomass yields, rapid scalability and well-developed transformation methods. Worldwide, there are companies which have been established to exploit this technology. One company is developing a vaccine and therapeutic proteins for influenza called Proficia.
Pharma planta is also producing an anti-HIV antibody using tobacco. A company called Mapp Biopharmaceutical developed a drug to fight the outbreak of Ebola using tobacco antibody production. Caliber Bio Therapeutics applies tobacco plant-based expression for manufacturing recombinant proteins targeting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and breast cancers.
Biofuel industry application
Tobacco seeds contain high quantities of biofuel oil than rapeseeds and soyabean. Tobacco plant is a raw material for the production of bio-fuels, mainly bio-ethanol. The tobacco plants contain a range of chemical compounds, other than nicotine, such as solanesol, tobacco proteins, pectin, organic acids which can be extracted as value added products. Solanesol, proteins, pectin and carboxylic acids is high-value bio-chemicals which are used for the treatment of heart diseases, cancers and ulcers.
Foreign export earnings
Looking at other SADC countries like Zimbabwe and Malawi, tobacco farming constitutes 23 percent of Zimbabwe’s exports and 60 percent of Malawi’s total export earnings. In these countries tobacco control policies, which led to a low domestic demand of tobacco products, did not affect the trade balance but rather the global demand for exported products.
So it can be argued that production of tobacco in Namibia will not change the local demand for tobacco products and even future campaigns to reduce the domestic consumption of tobacco that could benefit the health of the citizenly of Namibia will not affect the production volumes of tobacco in Namibia.
In other words, the number of smokers in Namibia will not sharply increase because we are growing tobacco. Whether Namibia approves the production of tobacco or not, the fact, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), is that the number of tobacco consumers will increase from 1.1 billion to 1, 6 billion by 2025. So even in the future, transitioning from a tobacco dependent to tobacco independent economy will not pose any transitional challenges as most of the domestic consumption will not depend on the growing of tobacco in the country.
The United States is the fourth largest tobacco-producing country in the world, followed by China, India, and Brazil. Farms in the United States harvested more than 400 000 tons of tobacco in 2015. In these industrialised nations like the USA, with North Carolina and Kentucky states, accounting for more than 70 percent of total tobacco cultivation in that country, research has shown that employment from tobacco value chain averages two percent of total employment in those states.
Even in these states whose economies are believed to depend on tobacco has recorded very low employment rates attributed to tobacco. So it is a myth to say tobacco production in USA and other developed countries is an employment creator. It is reported that the bulk of jobs generated by the tobacco industry in the USA are in manufacturing (48,800 employed at 114 tobacco factories in 21 states) and farming (136,000 employed in 23 states).
In Namibia, across the tobacco value chain, farming will be the mainstay, followed by tobacco auction floors. Most jobs will be created in support services like in equipment and machinery, farm inputs and others which will employ people from estimated 150 professions from marketing, human resource practitioners and researchers in all areas, agriculturists, technicians, mechanics and many others.
For Namibia to proceed with the tobacco plantations a number of questions needs to be answered. Some important ones are: Are we growing the tobacco for cigarettes and or other uses? How will tobacco plantations develop or harm the populace and environment in growing areas? Thirdly, what would most likely be points of agreement and disagreements between tobacco workers and estate landlords? Between landlords and tobacco company executives? Between company executives and government officials?
Fourthly, how will the buying practices of international buyers impact on social and economic relations in Namibia tobacco sector? Fifthly, what will be the size and nature of employment created? Lastly, what will be the corporate responsibilities of the companies involved in tobacco industries?
In the final analysis, enhancing green scheme projects’ value chain through tobacco growing in the Zambezi is possible, but playing a ‘saint’ in preventing tobacco production, while a noble stance, might not prevent the world in producing more smokers, but can only deny many Namibians food on the table. Let’s grow tobacco.