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 www.tobaccoleaf.org).
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.
International business environment
- The major producers are China, India, Brazil, the United States, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi. China is the world’s largest producer of tobacco and produces over 35 percent of the world’s tobacco.
- The International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) – www.tobaccoleaf.org – presents the cause of millions of tobacco farmers. For international information, views and research, see also www.coresta.org, website of the Cooperation Centre for Scientific Research Relative to Tobacco (CORESTA).
- The website of the Framework Convention Alliance for Tobacco Control is www.fctc.org.
- Protocol to Eliminate Illicit Trade in Tobacco Products www.who.int/fctc/protocol/en/
- Tobacco Tactics https://tobaccotactics.org, “The essential source for rigorous research on the tobacco industry”
- The Tobacco Transformation Index is a tool to accelerate the necessary transformation of the global tobacco industry for the benefit of public health. See https://tobaccotransformationindex.org.
South Africa: exports and imports
Find the latest Abstract of Agricultural Statistics on www.dalrrd.gov.za. Tobacco is included in this report on agricultural production, imports and exports.
Recent research has shown how tobacco may be used in ways that do not involve consumption in the traditional way:
- In South Africa, the WWF has championed Solaris tobacco as a possible source of biofuel that could potentially replace petroleum-based fuels. See the blog “Biofuel production in sub-Saharan Africa should be prioritised for aviation” and “Solaris-based biodiesel introduced to operations at OR Tambo” (Liedtke, 2019).
- Also in South Africa, researchers at the University of Cape Town have created a promising new vaccine candidate to help prevent the devastating effects of African Horse Sickness (AHS) – and they’re producing it in tobacco plants.
- In the Philippines tobacco pulp is going to be used for making paper.
- 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.
- A startup in Thailand is aiming to develop the country’s first Covid vaccine based on tobacco.
- 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.
Sources: www.tobaccoleaf.org and www.iol.co.za/news/world/thai-startup-working-on-covid-vax-using-tobacco-leaves-481a4aa0-21ea-5ad6-a494-281f82ac0fb7. Find the ITGA’s presentation on alternative crops; WWF-SA and UCT (see "Websites & publications" heading).
Local business environment
The tobacco industry in South Africa can be split into two industries: primary and secondary industry.
The primary industry relates to all grower aspects. This means the actual growing, harvesting, curing, grading and delivery of unprocessed tobacco leaves to a processing plant.
Apart from farmer co-operatives and companies, tobacco merchants or leaf dealers are also part of the primary industry. These companies are known as intermediary buyers. They buy processed tobacco from processing plants according to specifications of their clients, who are manufacturers of tobacco products. In South Africa the leaf dealers mostly buy tobacco from grower co-operatives or companies, although some air cured tobacco is bought directly from contracted growers.
Two types of tobacco are produced in South Africa: Flue cured tobacco, which is used mainly for cigarettes; and Air cured tobacco, which is mainly used as pipe tobacco, snuff and RYO (roll your own cigarettes). Flue cured production is currently about 8 to 10 million kg per annum, of which almost the entire crop is used for local consumption. Air cured production is around 2 to 3 million kg per annum, of which 70% to 80% is used for local consumption. The aim is to increase the crop size in the short to medium term to meet export demand.
The secondary or manufacturing industry relates to the actual manufacturing and marketing of the end product to the consumer. These are tobacco products like cigarettes, pipe tobacco and snuff.
This industry is also responsible for the importing and exporting of finished tobacco products. Tobacco products are distributed through wholesalers, retailers and small players in the informal market (street vendors, spaza shops, etc).
In South Africa there are cigarette factories as well as factories which manufacture pipe tobacco products and snuff.
- Find the thorough “South Africa- Country Profile” at https://tobaccotactics.org/wiki/south-africa-country-profile/ (last edited in September 2021).
- GlobalNewswire. 2021, September 6. “South African Tobacco and Tobacco Products Industry 2021: e-Cigarette Industry Growing at a CAGR of Double that of Cigarettes, Cigars and Roll-your-own Tobacco”. Available at www.globenewswire.com/en/news-release/2021/09/06/2291839/28124/en/South-African-Tobacco-and-Tobacco-Products-Industry-2021-e-Cigarette-Industry-Growing-at-a-CAGR-of-Double-that-of-Cigarettes-Cigars-and-Roll-your-own-Tobacoo.html
- Find the latest Tobacco Market Value Chain Profile on the Directorate Marketing’s web pages at www.dalrrd.gov.za, website of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD).
- See the “Websites & publications” heading later on this page. The “Some articles” sub-heading includes stories about the latest developments in this sector.
National strategy and government contact
South Africa became party to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2005, a legal instrument governing all aspects related to tobacco, from growing to the end user. This means that South Africa is legally bound to implement the provisions contained in the treaty. Find more information on the FCTC at www.who.int/fctc/en.
- Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) http://fita.co.za Represents smaller manufacturers in the tobacco industry in Southern Africa
- Black Tobacco Farmers Association (BTFA) https://btfa.co.za BFTA is constituted by black emerging tobacco farmers from different parts of the country
- The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (TISA), no longer operational, was a voluntary trade association representing the interests of manufacturers, importers and exporters of tobacco products, leaf dealers and tobacco growers.
Training and research
There are AgriSETA-accredited tobacco courses which companies can offer, either in-house (like British American Tobacco South Africa) or as training providers. Mobile Agri Skills Development and Training (MASDT) is one training provider involved in tobacco training and incubators. See www.masdt.co.za. Another AgriSETA offering is learnerships and apprenticeships, a combination of on-the-job learning along with some theoretical training. The major part of the training can be offered on the farm. Find information on learnerships on the “Agricultural education & training” page or at www.agriseta.co.za (under “Skills delivery” option).
ARC-Industrial Crops (ARC-IC) www.arc.agric.za Training courses on tobacco are compiled according to requests. The infrastructure for research is well established and falls under the following disciplines:
- Cultivar Development
- Plant Protection (Pathology, Nematology & Entomology)
- Crop & Soil Science
The main campus at Rustenburg is situated on an experimental farm of 238ha. This institute is the only supplier of air-cured tobacco seed and produces eighty percent of the flue-cured tobacco seed planted in South Africa. Their support services include the following:
- Soil testing laboratory – analyses of all plant nutrients, including special tests such as inorganic nitrogen
- Analytical laboratory for testing of quality of irrigation water
- Analytical laboratory for plant analyses including nicotine and sugar
- Diagnostic services for all tobacco diseases
- Nematode laboratory for identification and quantification
- Entomological identifications
The laboratories are members of the Agri-Laboratory Association of Southern Africa (AgriLASA) and satisfy the full need for research and fertiliser recommendations of the tobacco industry.
The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) has done research on uses of a modified wild tobacco crop. Find notes on “greenpharm” on www.csir.co.za.
Lemang Agricultural Services www.afgri.co.za/lemang-agricultural-services/
Lowveld Agri Research & Support Services (LARSS) Tel: 071 681 0851
The University of Cape Town (UCT)’s Research Unit on the Economics of Excisable Products www.reep.uct.ac.za
The Lowveld Agricultural College, incorporated into the University of Mpumalanga, has a course on tobacco. Tel: 013 753 3064
In-house training is provided at co-operatives and manufacturers of tobacco products.
Cigarette manufacturers, importers and distributors
- Afroberg Tobacco Manufacturing Tel: 071 252 3413
- Amalgamated Tobacco Manufacturing Tel: 082 151 3265
- British American Tobacco South Africa www.batsa.co.za
- Carnilinx Tel: 011 334 8184
- Folha Manufacturers www.folha.co.za
- Gold Leaf Tobacco Company www.gltc.co.za
- JT International South Africa www.jti.com
- Pacific Cigarette Company www.pacificcigarette.com
- Philip Morris South Africa www.pmi.com
- Protobac Tel: 043 745 0606
- Smokey Treats https://smokeytreats.co.za The world’s first biodegradable cigarettes
- Alliance One International (Dimon SA) www.aointl.com
- Universal Leaf South Africa – ULSA www.universalcorp.com. Universal plays a dual role as producer as well as trader.
- Universal Leaf Africa – ULA www.universalcorp.com
OTP manufacturers and importers
OTP (Other Tobacco Products) refers to all tobacco products other than cigarettes, e.g. pipe tobacco; cigarette tobacco for roll-your-own, tobacco molasses, snuff, snus, cigars, cigarillos, cigarette paper.
- Amano Cigars www.amanocigars.co.za
- The Cigar Company South Africa www.habanos.com
- Home of Cut Rag www.homeofcutrag.com
- OTP Distributors Tel: 021 905 4905 http://otpd.co.za
- Van Erkoms Tabakke Tel: 015 491 3204
Websites and publications
The ARC has the following publications, which are currently being updated for sale:
- Guide to the production of tobacco
- Produksieriglyne vir tabak
- A Photo Guide For The Identification Of Bacterial Wilt Of Tobacco
Remedies for tobacco pests and diseases constantly change: in addition to the ARC publications mentioned above, refer to Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) publications, regularly updated e.g. A Guide to the Control of Plant Diseases, A Guide to the Control of Plant Pests etc.
Find the latest Tobacco Market Value Chain Profile on the Directorate Marketing pages at www.dalrrd.gov.za.
The DALRRD/NAMC TradeProbe 82 (August 2020) includes “Tobacco industry in the midst of COVID-19 and humankind”.
Van Walbeek C., Filby S. & Van der Zee K. 2020. Lighting Up The Illicit Market: Smoker’s Responses To The Cigarette Sales Ban In South Africa. University of Cape Town. Available at www.reep.uct.ac.za/sites/default/files/image_tool/images/405/Publications/reports/Lockdown%20Survey%20Final.pdf
Van Loggerenberg J. 2019. Tobacco wars. Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishing. Available at www.litnet.co.za/reader-impression-tobacco-wars-by-johann-van-loggerenberg/
Snyckers T. 2020. Dirty Tobacco: Spies, Lies and Mega-Profits. Cape Town: NB Publishers.
Tobacco Control Data Initiative https://southafrica.tobaccocontroldata.org
- Read our blogs “Cigarettes are Non-Essential, but Tobacco can Still Help the Fight against Covid-19” and “Saai to represent family farmers in cigarette ban case“.
- IANS. 2022, January 18. “Thai startup working on Covid vax using tobacco leaves”. IOL. Available at www.iol.co.za/news/world/thai-startup-working-on-covid-vax-using-tobacco-leaves-481a4aa0-21ea-5ad6-a494-281f82ac0fb7
- Staff Writer. 2021, September 17. “Damning reports strengthen push for new smoking and cigarette laws in South Africa”. Business Tech. Available at https://businesstech.co.za/news/lifestyle/522218/damning-reports-strengthen-push-for-new-smoking-and-cigarette-laws-in-south-africa/
- Van Dyk J. 2021, July 23. “How to end tobacco use for good: What SA’s Covid-19 tobacco ban has taught us”. News24. Available at www.news24.com/health24/medical/stop-smoking/how-to-end-tobacco-use-for-good-what-sas-covid-19-tobacco-ban-has-taught-us-20210723-2
- Fokazi S. 2021, June 1. “New dashboard sets the record straight about smoking in SA”. TimesLive. Available at www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2021-06-01-new-dashboard-sets-the-record-straight-about-smoking-in-sa/
- Luckhoff P. 2021, May 25. “Spar says cigarette sales not likely to recover after brand-switching during ban”. 702. Available at www.702.co.za/articles/417419/spar-says-cigarette-sales-not-likely-to-recover-after-brand-switching-during-ban
- Carte Blanche. 2020, July 29. “Inside the Cigarette Smuggling Trade”. M-Net. Available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=tA24lQGmqQw
- Irusen E. 2020, May 26. “Smoking and Covid-19: This is what the science says”. IOL. Available at www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/smoking-and-covid-19-this-is-what-the-science-says-48528758
- Dimitropoulos S. 2020, January 2. “The tobacco farmers chasing a sweeter crop”. BBC News. Available at www.bbc.com/news/business-50629107
- Liedtke S. 2019, November 28. “Solaris-based biodiesel introduced to operations at OR Tambo”. Engineering News. Available at www.engineeringnews.co.za/article/solaris-based-biodiesel-introduced-to-operations-at-or-tambo-2019-11-28
- Sishuba S. 2019, October 15. “Big opportunities for small-scale tobacco farmers”. Farmer’s Weekly. Available at www.farmersweekly.co.za/agri-business/empowerment/big-opportunities-for-small-scale-tobacco-farmers/
- Mkentane, L. 2019, January 27. “Black Tobacco Farmers Association launched”. Business Report. Available at www.iol.co.za/business-report/economy/black-tobacco-farmers-association-launched-18968012
- University of Cape Town (UCT). 2018, November 26. “New hope in fight against African Horse Sickness”. Available at www.news.uct.ac.za/article/-2018-11-26-new-hope-in-fight-against-african-horse-sickness [a promising vaccine from tobacco plants]
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