A Financial Comparison of Farming Maize vs. Tobacco
On Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m. I am usually at our regional Savings Club meeting in Nyangiti primary school, fighting sleepiness in the heat of the afternoon. Outside the window is the most amazing field of tobacco, lush, leafy and bright green. I’m kind of fascinated by how beautiful the plant is, considering the hate-need relationship it holds over the community. It is the most prominent cash crop, despite high labor requirements and negative impacts on health and environment. I asked about tobacco farming, so that I could compare it to Nuru’s maize-based agricultural program. Somehow*, the notes and sketches scrawled in the margins of my field notebook became an informal geek-out session comparing costs and labor associated with farming tobacco vs. maize. The step-by-step detail is only to compare labor requirements, so Normal People, feel free to skip to the last paragraph!
Disclaimer: This is obviously an unconfirmed, loosely technical comparison of costs of farming 1 acre of maize vs. 1 acre of tobacco, collected anecdotally from field officers. The cost of inputs includes interest. Labor was calculated in days, which assumes 1 person working 8 hours. I did not take into account efficiencies achieved by group or family farming, or comparative costs of transport.
* I don’t get out much.
1. START WITH TOBACCO COMPANY-LOANED INPUTS
3 packets seed ………………………………………free
4 50-kg sacks NMK fertilizer ………………… Ksh.19,600
2 50-kg sacks CAN fertilizer ………………… Ksh.6,000
2 bags pesticide …………………………………… Ksh.1,400
2. PLANT SEEDLINGS
Dig 2 30X1-meter nursery beds. Plant, add fertilizer, and build lofted mulch covering (1-2 people, 3 days).
Water twice daily for 1.5 months; start reducing mulch when tobacco sprouts after 1 week (1 person, 2 hours/day).
After 2 months in nursery bed, transplant and water (1 person, 4 days).
After 1-3 weeks, add fertilizer and conduct gapping (1 person, 6 days).
Weed immediately after transplant (1 person, 2 weeks).
After 2 weeks, 2nd weeding.
After 2 weeks, 3rd weeding.
Top/prune blossoms or leaves will lose weight. Pesticide applied throughout.
Harvest in 4 rounds, total of 500-1,000 kg tobacco. Each round of harvesting requires:
– Pick leaves (5 people, 1 day).
– Tie tobacco leaves to racks to hang in tobacco smoking house (Ksh.1,500 hired labor).
– Heat to required temperature specifications and monitor (1 person, 3 days, Ksh.10,000 firewood).
– Sort by grade and bale (2 people, 1.5 days).
Purchase price depends on grade. Average Ksh.110/kg including Ksh.3/kg premium for properly baled tobacco.
Total Revenue = 200kg/round x 4 rounds x Ksh.110/kg = Ksh.88,000
Total Expenses = Ksh.27,000 inputs + (Ksh.11,500 hired labor & firewood/round x 4 rounds) = Ksh.73,000
TOTAL PROFIT PER ACRE = KSH.15,000
Total Labor = 83 person-days
1. START WITH NURU-LOANED INPUTS
1 10-kg bag seed ………………………………… Ksh.1,265
1 50-kg sacks DAP fertilizer ………………… Ksh.2,200
1 50-kg sacks CAN fertilizer ………………… Ksh.1,540
2. PLOUGH (1 person, 4 days)
Dig hole and add DAP, cover with soil then add seed and cover (4 people, 2 days).
No extra watering necessary outside of natural rainfall.
After 2-3 weeks, conduct gapping and weed (1 person, 2 weeks).
After 3 more weeks, weed and apply CAN.
Cut and stook maize stalks (5 people, 2 days).
Shell maize (2 people, 2 weeks).
Total Revenue = Ksh.20/kg x 13 90-kg sacks/acre = Ksh.23,400
Total Expenses = Ksh.5,005
TOTAL PROFIT PER ACRE = KSH.18,395
Total Labor = 64 person-days
Ksh.3,395, or US$47, may not seem like much of a difference. But for people living in extreme poverty, it can be as much as a quarter of their income. And numbers are only part of the story. Farmers in the community are well aware of the health problems associated with harvesting and fire- or flue-curing tobacco, the heavy rate at which tobacco depletes soil nutrients, and the pollution caused by heavy use of pesticides. The labor intensive nature of farming tobacco especially impacts women and children, because they bear the responsibility of collecting firewood and water for the tobacco. Knowing this, it was still difficult for farmers to give up the cash crop when traditional maize yield was 3 sacks per acre. It’s easy to see how farmers struggling to feed their families might overlook some of those costs. With the high-quality inputs and methods introduced by Nuru, average maize yield has increased to 12-15 sacks per acre, with the added benefit of lowering household expenses by growing rather than buying food. Better food security, health, income, and more importantly, choice.