- Tobacco use kills about 9,000 Kenyans every year through diseases such as cancer, according to date from the Ministry of Health.
- WHO director general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus says tobacco still occupies thousands of acres that could be put to more productive use.
The Migori county government will next week be awarded by the World Health Organization for helping transition more than 1,000 farmers from tobacco farming into other crops.
The award is in commemoration with the World No Tobacco Day which WHO has chosen to celebrate in Migori county.
Tobacco use kills about 9,000 Kenyans every year through diseases such as cancer, according to date from the Ministry of Health.
WHO director general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus says tobacco still occupies thousands of acres that could be put to more productive use.
Dr Ghebreyesus spoke ahead of World No Tobacco Day, which will be celebrated on May 31.
Tobacco is an unscheduled crop in Kenya, which means the government does not monitor or support it production through input subsidies.
Extension officers only see tobacco farms when they are attending to other crops.
However, the government subsidises tobacco growing indirectly through fertilisers.
Tobacco products manufacturers have also been clamouring for tax holidays to produce the highly addictive nicotine pouches, which are blamed for increased drug abuse in schools.
WHO said tobacco is not only a massive threat to food insecurity but health overall, including the health of tobacco farmers.
As such, the UN organisation has asked the Kenyan government to stop subsidising tobacco farming and support more sustainable crops that could feed people.
At least four million hungry Kenyans are currently in need of donated food.
In Kenya, about 50,000 farmers produce tobacco leaf on around 13,500 hectares of land, primarily in western Kenya, mostly in Migori.
“Tobacco is responsible for eight million deaths a year (globally), yet governments across the world spend millions supporting tobacco farms,” said Dr Ghebreyesus said.
“By choosing to grow food instead of tobacco, we prioritise health, preserve ecosystems, and strengthen food security for all.”
The WHO said tobacco is not only a massive threat to food insecurity but health overall, including the health of tobacco farmers.
“Farmers are exposed to chemical pesticides, tobacco smoke and as much nicotine as found in 50 cigarettes—leading to illnesses like chronic lung conditions and nicotine poisoning,” said Dr Ruediger Krech, director of health promotion at WHO.
Various studies done in Kenya have shown that tobacco growing is not profitable and traps farmers in a cycle of poverty.
A report on the Status of Tobacco Production and Trade in Africa by WHO and United Nations Conference for Trade and Development published in 2015 showed that the main tobacco leaf-growing countries in Africa are among the six world’s poorest countries.
A study titled the Economics of Tobacco Farming conducted in Migori, Bungoma, Busia and Meru counties in 2016 demonstrates that a lack of access to credit and market access for alternative agricultural goods is what drives many farmers to grow tobacco.
The study further observed that tobacco farming should not be in any part of Kenya’s broader economic development strategy since it was found to be a hindrance to economic growth.
A recent WHO report, “Grow food, not tobacco”, highlights the ills of tobacco growing and the benefits of switching to more sustainable food crops for farmers, communities, economies, the environment, and the world at large.
The report also exposes the tobacco industry for trapping farmers in a vicious cycle of debt, propagating tobacco growing by exaggerating its economic benefits and lobbying through farming front groups.
Head of the Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance Joel Gitali, who has been fighting tobacco use for more than 20 years in Kenya, urged the government to increase taxes on tobacco products.
“This will protect millions of Kenyans exposed to harmful tobacco products that are sold cheaply. It will also help the government raise funds for its obligations,” he said.
This year’s theme for the World No Tobacco Day is “We need food, not tobacco”.
This year, the WHO also said it is recognising Kenyans who have sustained tobacco control advocacy.
A villager who helps tobacco farmers move to better cash crops, and a Nairobi city official who leads anti-smoking campaigns, will be awarded on Wednesday.
The Migori government will also be awarded for supporting hundreds of former tobacco farmers to transition into alternative crops.
Migori farmer, Sprina Robi Chacha, ditched tobacco farming about two years ago and has helped her friends transition into economically viable crops.
Antony Muthema, the head of the tobacco control unit of Nairobi city, who is being awarded, has been fighting public smoking and the illegal use of shisha in Nairobi.
“Every year, WHO recognises individuals or organisations in each of the six WHO regions for their accomplishments in the area of tobacco control,” the WHO said in a statement.
Kenya was one of the first countries to ratify the legally binding WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control in 2004 and adopted the Kenya Tobacco Control Act in 2007.
Both documents stipulate a need for an alternative to tobacco production that protects farmers.
Last year, the government and UN agencies launched Tobacco Free-Farms project in Migori, helping more than 900 farmers grow high-iron beans as an alternative crop.
The UN agencies and government provide training, quality inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, and a ready market for the harvest, through the World Food Programme’s local procurement initiatives.
Tobacco-Free Farms project is a joint initiative of the WHO, the World Food Programme, and the Food and Agriculture Organisation, in collaboration with the Government of Kenya.
This support enables the farmers to stop tobacco-growing contractual agreements and switch to alternative food crops that will help feed communities instead of harming their health, with confidence that a long-term market exists.
The beans are a less labour-intensive cash crop selling for about Sh130 per kilogramme.
When the project was launched last year, former Health CS Mutahi Kagwe said such projects put the health of Kenyans first.
The CS noted that the government was working towards attaining Universal Health Coverage for all Kenyans and any projects that would reduce or alleviate medical expenses for Kenyans.
“The project in Migori for the tobacco farmers is a major shift towards attaining a healthy nation and the Ministry of Health fully supports such ventures,” Kagwe said.