Table of Contents

1. Overview

The tobacco plant is a member of the same botanical family as tomatoes, potatoes, peppers or eggplants.

Tobacco does well in poorer soils, providing farmers with a welcome alternative crop. In many cases, tobacco provides a higher income than any other smallholder crop. As a crop, it fits well into environmentally friendly rotations: growing it will benefit the next crop, (like maize) to be grown in that soil. A typical farmer with, for example, two to three hectares of land can earn a good income from only a small part of that land being planted with tobacco. The nearest co-operative can help the farmer by providing seeds and fertiliser and by giving advice on planting, growing, harvesting and curing tobacco and other crops.

There are some 13 000 seeds in a gram – looking rather like powdery instant coffee. The seeds are so small that they must be nurtured in specially prepared and protected seedbeds for 60 - 90 days before being planted in the field. After a couple of weeks, soil is banked up around the seedlings to protect them and to allow them to develop a good root system. Two months later, the plants’ flowers and some of the upper leaves are ‘topped’ to concentrate growth in the remaining leaves (in the same way that tomatoes are ‘pinched out’).

All the time, the farmer needs to provide the appropriate nutrition for the plant. It would be inadvisable to give general guidelines as each region has very specific factors to take into consideration e.g. the type of soil, nitrogen levels, rainfall levels etc. Watch out for pests as the crop grows towards the harvesting stage.

There are several stages to producing tobacco: growing, harvesting, curing, grading and selling (all done by the farmer). Thereafter, processing and packing are done by the processor. Manufacturing of tobacco products and the marketing thereof are done by the manufacturer.

Curing is a carefully controlled process to achieve the texture, colour and overall quality of a specific tobacco type. During the cure, leaf starch is converted into sugar, the green colour vanishes and the tobacco goes through colour changes from lemon to yellow to orange to brown like tree leaves in autumn. There are two main curing methods used in South Africa.

  • Air-curing. Air cured tobacco, for example Burley, is hung in unheated, ventilated barns to dry naturally until the leaf reaches a light to medium brown colour. At this point, there are virtually no sugars left in the leaf.
  • Flue-curing. Heat is introduced into a barn via pipes from an exterior furnace like radiators connected to the central heating system. This controlled heat allows the leaves to turn yellow/orange at which point they are fixed. These leaves now contain a high amount of sugar. Virginia tobacco is flue-cured.

Two other methods (not practised in South Africa) are Sun-Curing and Fire-Curing (you can read about this on

After curing, the farmer grades the leaves into different leaf positions, qualities and colours and packs his grades into what is known as a farmer bale of 30 – 50kg. He then takes his bales to a buying centre or auction for sale. In South Africa the processing facilities belong to tobacco farmers in the form of companies or co-operatives. Farmers are paid for their tobacco at the point of delivery according to a valuation being placed on every bale of tobacco. After this, the tobacco is processed and packed according to specifications of manufacturers and/or leaf dealers.

Recent research has shown how tobacco may be used in ways that do not involve consumption in the traditional way:

  • In the Philippines tobacco pulp is going to be used for making paper.
  • In Canada researchers are studying tobacco as a possible source of biofuel that could potentially replace petroleum-based fuels.
  • In Australia scientists are engaging in “molecular farming” to extract vitronectin from tobacco plants. This protein is known to promote cell growth, and has the potential to be used in cancer therapy and wound healing. Indeed, in the extraction of proteins, tobacco has proven to be safer than animals, which can harbour viruses that can infect humans. Further, tobacco is said to be the easiest plant to genetically modify and ideal for this type of research as it yields a million seeds per plant and grows quickly.
  • In the USA a group of scientists have genetically engineered tobacco plants to produce a vaccine against the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), while another team of researchers has developed a vaccine that protects monkeys against the Ebola and Marburg viruses. Yet another team of scientists has managed to produce immunising proteins from tobacco for a plague vaccine. Although all three vaccines are not yet available for human use, the research raises the possibility of producing economical vaccines for diseases for which there is no known cure. Still in the US, researchers at a biotechnology firm are working to genetically alter the tobacco leaf to clone a protein found in two strains of HIV.
Source: Find the ITGA’s presentation on alternative crops.