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Chemical ban threatens tobacco. (Countryfile: Malawi).

Malawi's tobacco industry, already facing a difficult future because of the plummeting demand for the leaf, has received yet another body blow. Environmentalists are calling for the ban of menthyl bromide which has traditionally been used by tobacco farmers to kill weeds and prevent diseases that affect the crop.

Since independence from Britain in 1964, tobacco has been Malawi's major foreign export earner, now accounting for 80% of the total foreign exchange revenue and contributing 35% to gross domestic product (GDP). It employs about half of the country's working population in its various sectors.

Menthyl bromide has been in use in Malawi for more than 15 years with about 90% being used in the tobacco estate nurseries to kill weeds and diseases which limit yields.

Farmers are frantically urging government to implement the ban on the chemical in phases while it looks for another equally cheap and effective product to sustain the industry - the backbone of Malawi's agro-based economy. They are also pleading with both government researchers and environmental conservationists for support.

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone layer of 1987, an international treaty under the UN which aims at protecting the ozone layer by controlling production, consumption and trading of ozone depleting substances (ODS), obliges both industrialised and developing nations to phase out the use of Menthyl bromide by 2005 and 2015 respectively. Under the treaty, only critical areas where an alternative is not possible will be offered exception.

Effects of ozone depletion

According to experts ozone depletion affects humans and the environment by increasing their exposure to UV-B radiation which is known to damage the human eyes, causes skin cancer, suppresses the immune system, reduce rates of plant growth and upsets the balance of the ecosystem.

Direct contact with the chemical can cause injury to the brain, lungs and throat.

Stakeholders are aiding governments to sensitise tobacco farmers in their countries on the dangers of ozone, while they receive funding and technical support to phase out the chemical and research into alternative products through the implementing agencies: the UNDP, the UN Industrial Development Organisation and the World Bank.

Gilbert Chagodoka, a farmer in the central Malawi district of Kasungu, one of the chief tobacco producing areas in the country said, "We are aware of the ban but they must provide a viable alternative rather than kill our future."

Companies that produce, import or deal in the chemical have been resorting to desperate survival measures, reducing the price of Menthyl bromide to rock-bottom prices so that farmers do not buy alternative chemicals being tested. But analysts doubt that by the 2004 deadline farmers will have ceased applying the bromide.

About 132 metric tonnes of the bromide are used annually in Malawi - with 21 metric tonnes used for grain storage. United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) Menthyl Bromide Technical Operations Committee (MBTOC) estimates that about 30-95% of the gas is released into the atmosphere when Menthyl bromides are applied.

A senior environmental officer at Malawi's Department of Environmental Affairs, Patrick Salifu says since Malawi ratified the Montreal protocol, it is supposed to ban its use, although he admitted the economic impact on the country's 'green gold,' tobacco.

"We are already experimenting with farmers on the alternative chemical since we have no choice," said Salifu, adding that Malawi received $3m from the secretariat of the Multilateral Fund through UNDP to use in the phasing out programme.

Alternatives in use

Presently, the Agricultural Research and Extension Trust (ARET), which is implementing the programme, has already started experimenting with new chemicals with farmers. Salifu says that $400,000 funding has already been used in the first phase. The fund which was established by parties to the Montreal Protocol in 1990 to assist developing countries is mainly financed by industrialised countries.

ARET's senior officer, Albert Banda, said alternatives being used in experiments include Basamid and Herbifume, and results were encouraging. Farmers are also trying non-chemical means to treat crop - like the floating tray system (used to raise plant seedlings in non soil material - such as groundnut shells, sawdust, maize husks and composed pine bark) and the use of resistant varieties and crop rotation.

Malawi is the second largest bromide user in southern Africa, after Zimbabwe, another major producer of tobacco in the region. Globally, the US is the biggest user followed by Italy and Japan.

African countries which rely heavily on tobacco exports for their national revenues, such as South Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia, among others, have cause for worry since the tobacco industry is already experiencing many other pressures, especially from the anti-tobacco smoking lobby spearheaded by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The UN organisation wants to cut production, advertising and consumption of cigarettes and tobacco products by 2005.

There are also other impediments to the tobacco sector, such as the over-production in major producing countries and escalating costs of production.

Malawi is the current chair of the International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA), Africa region. At its meeting last November, hosted by Malawi, the association promised to fight the WHO lobby until poor African countries were ensured of other means of earning forex.

Speaking at a meeting held in Mangochi, Malawi's President Bakili Muluzi said: "We shall continue to produce tobacco until we identify alternatives to develop our economies."

RELATED ARTICLE: MOZ, MALAWI SEE EYE TO EYE ON OIL

Mozambique and Malawi are moving closer together in a bid to reduce petroleum fuel prices at filling stations. Plans are afoot to enter into joint oil purchasing agreements and hence benefit from bulk-buying discounts. New storage facilities at Mozambique's Beira port and along the Ncala Development corridor linking the two countries.

A delegation from Mozambique's Petroleos De Mocambique (Petromoc), representing the oil industry recently finalised a pact with various Malawian organisations including Malawi's Petroleum Control Commission (PCC) and government officials from the departments of Environmental, Energy and Lands Survey.

Mozambique will begin long-term storage of some of Malawi's fuel supplies at its tanks at the port of Beira and also plans to construct a storage facility at Liwonde along the Mozambican Nacala Railway line leading into Malawi.

The storage and joint procurement agreement was signed with PCC, a state parastatal which oversees fuel products importation. The Central East African Railways (CEAR) formerly Malawi Railways, now privatised is among the stakeholders on the Malawi side.

Step in the right direction

Petromoc chief executive Casimiro Fransisco, said that as part of the Nacala Corridor Development project, jointly being implemented by Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia to cut cargo transportation costs - the company intends to invest into more storage facilities at the port of Nacala and also establish an oil retail chain in Malawi. Mozambique has also offered Malawi additional storage facilities at its two major ports of up to 7,000 metric tonnes, respectively for petrol and diesel.

"Through this venture we are also studying the viability of establishing a petroleum refinery plant at Nacala," said Fransico, whose company, which also caters to the fuel needs for Zimbabwe and formerly wholly owned by the state is now a commercial limited liability company with the private sector holding a 20% stake.

The chairman of Malawi's PC , Kaphwiti Banda, hailed the venture as a step forward in promoting business and developmental relations between the two n neighbouring countries. "Prices of fuel influences prices of almost every other commodity and services. Bulk buying will therefore reduce petroleum costs for the benefit of the ordinary man. Malawi cannot afford fuel on its own due to lack of storage facilities and transport problems," he said.

For almost two decades Malawi incurred hefty transportation costs routing its cargo through the South African port of Durban due to the 16 year old civil war between the Frelimo government of President Joaquim Chissano and Renamo rebels. The war devastated Mozambique's infrastructure.

When the civil war ended in the early 1990s the three southern African countries embarked on the Ncala Corridor development project.

Hobbs Gama

GAMBIANS TAKE TO THE INTERNET

The number of people using the Internet in The Gambia has tripled since July 2000, according to Papa Yusupha Njie, CEO of Unique Solutions, an Internet service provider.

A national survey conducted in July 2000 had put the total number of users at 5000, most of them aged between 36 and 45 years, meaning that Gambian youths, who constitute 50% of the population were in the minority - although the trend has been rapidly changing.

The survey also showed that 68% of Internet users are Gambians and that only 20% of the users accessed Internet from their homes because of the high cost of computers. As most people accessed the Internet from their offices, the peak usage period was put at between 8am and 4pm. The survey further showed that the most popular applications were email and browsing, put at 99% and 91% respectively.

But Njie believes the statistics have changed dramatically in the last two years owing to a number of factors, which include the introduction of computer classes in many secondary schools under the World Link Project and the increase in Internet awareness in the major cities.

"The information we got from the first Unique Solutions Internet Summer Camp last summer and from the Gambia Internet Week held last November justify my claim," says Njie, adding that most of their clients are young Gambians.

Despite the epileptic nature of the public power supply, the country has witnessed an increase in the number of the cyber cafes, from about 10 in 2000 to about 30, most of them in the Greater Banjul Area.

Young Gambians now form the majority of Internet users; they use it for email, news, research, college enrolment, sourcing of scholarships, online training and discussions on the current international hot topics.

Paschal Eze, Banjul
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Author:Gama, Hobbs
Publication:African Business
Geographic Code:6MALA
Date:Feb 1, 2002
Words:1625
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