HARARE, March 30, 2016 (Xinhua) -- Traders inspect the packed tobacco leaves as the 2016 sale season begins at the Tobacco Sales Floor in Harare, Zimbabwe, March 30, 2016. The output of tobacco, Zimbabwe's top export earner, is expected to fall by 15 percent to 160 million kg in 2016 after an El-Nino induced drought that has left up to four million people in need of food aid, officials estimate. (Xinhua/Stringer)
HARARE, March 30 (Xinhua) -- Zimbabwe's tobacco production is expected to fall by 15 percent to 160 million kg in 2016 after an El-Nino induced drought that has left up to four million people in need of food aid, industry officials said on Wednesday.
Tobacco leaf is Zimbabwe's top export earner, with the country producing 189 million kg and earning 855 million U.S. dollars from tobacco sales in 2015.
Speaking at the opening of this year's tobacco selling season on Wednesday, chairperson of the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) Monica Chinamasa said the number of growers this year had declined to 72,000 from 91,000 last year due to drought and shortage of funds.
New growers had also dropped to 9,120 compared to 17,255 in the previous marketing season.
She said this year's tobacco marketing season was delayed by three weeks due to the late onset of rains which had delayed planting of dry land crop.
The tobacco industry, she added, had been hit by corruption and illegal practices believed to be prejudicing growers substantial amounts of money.
Agriculture Minister Joseph Made urged the TIMB to work with the police to curb corrupt activities in the marketing of the golden leaf.
"I am reliably informed that problems of corruption and illegal sales are quite rampant and are being promoted by some undesirable participants within the tobacco industry who seem to want to see the impairment of the tobacco industry," the minister said.
Meanwhile, the first bale sold at 4.50 U.S. dollars per kg on the opening day, up from 3.50 dollars last year.
Despite expressing dissatisfaction with the prices, some farmers interviewed said the price was much better compared to last season when farmers had to riot against low prices.
Grower Stanley Ngandu and owner of the first bale sold said he was not happy with the price as he expected a much higher price.
"Even though they are just primings, I expected the price to be a little bit higher than this," he said.
Zimbabwe's tobacco leaf is famed for its good flavor as it is generally produced under good climatic conditions.
At peak in 2001, the country produced 231 million kg before production plunged to below 50 million kg in 2008 but started rising again to the current levels.
China, with the world's largest cigarette smoking population, is the biggest importer of Zimbabwe's tobacco, buying more than half of the Zimbabwean golden leaf.