CAPPA – Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa

Report of Field Visit to Oke-Ogun, Oyo State

On May 16, 2023, the Corporate Accountability and Public Participation Africa (CAPPA) team, accompanied by the media, visited tobacco-growing communities in the Oke-Ogun axis of Oyo State. The visit was part of CAPPA’s tobacco industry monitoring activities ahead of the World No Tobacco Day 2023 commemoration on May 31. The theme of the 2023 commemoration is We need food, not Tobacco.

Oke-Ogun is classified as the food basket of Oyo state on account of its arable land which makes farming a major vocation for people of the area. The region also has the largest concentration of tobacco farms and tobacco growers in Nigeria. British American Tobacco Nigeria (BATN) has over the years explored this potential in Oke Ogun and engaged the farmers in tobacco production to sustain their $150 million Ibadan plant. Till 2019 British American Tobacco (BAT) had an agronomy center in Iseyin community in Oke Ogun

CAPPA visit was to ascertain the following:

  • The status of tobacco growing in Oke Ogun
  • Impact of tobacco growing on food security
  • Impact of tobacco growing on the environment
  • Cases of child labour on tobacco farms which had been established in previous visits
  • The general well-being of tobacco farmers

During the trip, CAPPA visited Ilu Oke, Ilero, and Iseyin communities.

The first noticeable observation at the team’s arrival in Oke-Ogun was the absence of random tobacco processing sights. In times past, tobacco cultivation and processing were commonplace among households in the community, to the point where drying and sorting of tobacco leaves outside homes was usually a common observation. However, such scenes were rare during this field visit. This also meant we had to tour for longer in the town searching for tobacco farms and farmers to talk to.

Testimonies

Mr. Fasasi, Ramonu Olorunlugo

During this visit, our first chance encounter and interview was with a 70-year-old tobacco farmer, Fasasi, Ramonu Olorunlugo, in the Ilu Oke, area of Oke-Ogun.  Fasasi who claimed he had spent, over 30 years of his life in tobacco farming took the team to his three hectares of land, walking us through the different stages of tobacco cultivation and curing whilst noting that it has been the bedrock of his family’s livelihood, supporting his 17 children.

According to Fasasi, “In recent years, the tobacco business has faced quite a downturn. Tobacco corporations around here shut down their operations about four years ago, mainly due to the government’s heavy taxes as they told us. They only compensated us tobacco farmers with sums from N600,000 to N1,000,000. The situation made us reconsider our options and prompted us to grow other crops like cassava and corn alongside tobacco. These days, we mostly deal with independent buyers, mostly Igbo people, who purchase our tobacco leaves. They even offer loans for tobacco cultivation. Despite the dwindling business, tobacco farming isn’t completely dead though. There are a few places around like Awaye, Igbohu, and Ilero where cultivation still happens.”

In what was once a region dominated by tobacco farms, the CAPPA team observed active cassava processing in Ilua Oke – a clear sign of the decline in tobacco farming. When questioned about the possibility of abandoning tobacco farming due to diminishing investments and health risks, Mr. Fasasi expressed that tobacco farming remains more profitable than other crops, and he employs local medicine to fight the impact of tobacco cultivation on his health. He said that a hectare of tobacco land could yield an average profit of N500, 000, far more than he could earn from alternative crops. This disparity is exacerbated by a lack of government investment and loans for modern agricultural methods, unlike the support extended by tobacco companies and independent buyers for tobacco farming.

Honorable Ojebisi Gabriel 

In another interview, Honorable Ojebisi Gabriel, a politician with familial roots in tobacco farming, shared: “My father was a full-time tobacco farmer. I remember warnings from the government about the health risks linked to high nicotine in tobacco. But for our local farmers, the allure of tobacco farming was strong — it offered good profits, stable prices, and even bonuses from tobacco corporations. Yet, things have changed. Heavy taxes imposed on tobacco companies led to their departure from our community around four years ago. They left the farmers with some parting payments though.’’

When questioned about the ongoing tobacco farming in the area and the parties involved following the withdrawal of major tobacco companies, Gabriel responded firmly. “I must make it clear that I do not endorse such practices, given my political position. I am resolute in avoiding any involvement in activities that may pose health risks or tarnish my political reputation.’’

In terms of the financial aspect, Gabriel acknowledged the profitability of tobacco farming when compared to other crops. “Tobacco has a fixed price, with bonuses added to it,” he explained. “This is quite unlike other crops such as maize and cassava, where market forces and intermediaries who transport farmers’ products to bigger markets largely dictate the price.”

Discussing government intervention, Gabriel emphasized the need for direct assistance to the farmers. “Aid should reach the farmers directly,” he insisted, “rather than being mishandled by agricultural extension officers, which is often the case.”

He urged the federal government to provide farmers in the South with modern farming tools and support, similar to the irrigation farming practiced in Northern Nigeria. “Such initiatives,” he believes, “can enhance crop yield and profitability, and gradually shift farmers’ reliance away from tobacco cultivation.”

Alhaji Salami Fasasi

In Ilero community, the CAPPA team met with Alhaji Salami Fasasi, a veteran tobacco farmer who used to own one of the biggest tobacco farms in the area. With over half a century of experience in tobacco cultivation, he offered his thoughts on the changes in tobacco farming over the years.  ‘‘I was once part of a vibrant group of forty farmers heavily engaged in the tobacco trade. In those years past, Ilero was dotted with sprawling tobacco farms. However, everything changed when increased taxes drove the tobacco companies, we worked with to pull out. I think they moved their operations to Ghana, leaving a significant void in a community that had heavily depended on tobacco farming. For us farmers, we were left with no other option but to suspend our tobacco cultivation. I still remember the vast stretch of my own tobacco farm, covering an impressive 10 acres. But when the tobacco companies left, they did provide us with some compensation proportional to the size of our farms. I received only N600,000 as part of that process.’’

In the absence of tobacco farming, Fasasi and other farmers have been pushed towards cultivating crops like maize and cassava. “We, the farmers, have had to adapt, shifting our efforts to growing crops like maize and cassava. Yet, the difference in profitability is stark. What we earn from these alternative crops is simply not comparable to our earnings from tobacco. My children, for instance, trained in tobacco farming, have chosen not to pursue it due to the lack of profit. Like many other young people in the area, they are learning new trades and seeking job opportunities in the city.” Said Fasasi

Pictures from Oke Ogun

Wood arranged for curing tobacco leaves
Shed for the cassava processing
Interrogating a former tobacco farmer
100-year-old Pa Olorunlugo still a tobacco farmer
One of the curing barns
Insignificant level of tobacco growing observed
Clearing of land for tobacco growing
Women now engage in cassava cultivation
CAPPA Team

Observations

During the field visit, the CAPPA team also tried to locate the tobacco companies’ sourcing offices in the region but were unable to find any. This absence of offices further supports the local accounts, indicating that these companies have indeed divested operations from the area. From our interactions, it was clear that the evolving shift from tobacco farming to food crops is driven more by circumstances than choice.  The farmers of Oke-Ogun are stuck in a tobacco-centered agricultural model primarily due to the perceived profitability and historical ties. However, there is an acknowledgment of the health risks associated with tobacco and a willingness to shift to food crop farming, provided they receive adequate support.

Given the withdrawal of major tobacco companies from Oke-Ogun, it is crucial for state authorities to invest in farmers and encourage the cultivation of alternative crops, facilitating the weaning off tobacco farming. Additionally, it’s vital to probe the presence of independent tobacco buyers in the region as this could signal either the use of proxies by tobacco companies to sidestep their responsibilities or the emergence of a new market entirely. Furthermore, given the vacuum left by tobacco companies in terms of local farmer support, it’s crucial to understand how these corporations are using Export Expansion Grants (EEG) provided by the government to stimulate the local market economy, and to determine their new sources of tobacco cultivation and market.

Conclusion and Recommendations to the Nigerian Government

  1. Provide substantial support to farmers in their transition from tobacco farming to other crops. This could include financial aid, affordable agricultural loans and insurance products. This would give farmers the financial means to transition to new crops and protect them from unforeseen losses.
  2. Investigate the disengagement contracts BAT Nigeria signed with local tobacco farmers in view of a breach of the terms which some of the farmers alleged.
  3. Disclose total acreage allocated to tobacco farming in Oke Ogun, and entire Nigeria.
  4. Compel BAT Nigeria to carry out a verifiable afforestation programme in the entire Oke Ogun axis to make up for decades of depleted ecosystem.
  5. Support the establishment of Farmers’ cooperatives to bolster their collective bargaining power when negotiating prices for crops and insulate them against market fluctuations.
  6. Support crop diversification programmes that can provide farmers with alternatives to tobacco farming. This program would provide resources to farmers to grow crops that are not only profitable but also sustainable and beneficial for the health of the land and people. The selection of these crops should take into consideration local soil, climate conditions, and market demand.
  7. Investment in local infrastructure such as irrigation systems, storage facilities, and transportation networks to aid the farming community. This would allow farmers to cultivate their crops more efficiently and facilitate access to markets and improve the bargaining power of farmers.
  8. Adequate health services should be made available to the Oke-Ogun community, especially for the ageing population of former tobacco farmers, while focusing on the prevention and treatment of ailments related to tobacco farming. This includes regular health check-ups, provision of personal protective equipment, and health education.

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