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.

International business environment provides vital information and updates including Free Trade Agreements, export markets and more.

  • 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) – presents the cause of millions of tobacco farmers. For international information, views and research, see also, website of the Cooperation Centre for Scientific Research Relative to Tobacco (CORESTA).


South Africa: exports and imports

Find the latest Abstract of Agricultural Statistics on 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.
  • 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: 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 350 wholesalers, 55 000 retailers and approximately 60 000 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.

Tobacco production and manufacturing is one of the most labour-intensive crops in South Africa. It provides employment to more than 8 000 farm workers and 2 500 factory workers, who in turn support more than 35 000 people, mostly in deep rural areas. Some 176 commercial and 155 small-scale farmers grow tobacco on 5 000 ha (TISA, 2018).


An excise and VAT amount of more than R16 billion was paid to Government in the 2016/17 tax year.


Challenges to the industry include:


  • over-regulation by government
  • growth in the illicit trade (estimated at 23% of total market)
  • increasing excise duties
  • declining local market
  • global onslaught on tobacco industry
  • sustainability of the primary industry

Further reading

R17.85 is the tax owed on any pack of cigarettes. One can assume that brands selling below this have not paid the tax due. Worryingly, these brands sell at shops accounting for 79.7% of all tobacco sales (Ipsos, 2018), which sabotages the brands paying their due to the country’s economy.

National strategy and government contact

Find information on the tobacco bill (2018) and legislation around tobacco in South Africa at

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

Find information on the different directorates of the Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) under the “Branches” option at

Department of Health Tel: 012 395 8086

Associations involved

  • The Tobacco Institute of Southern Africa (TISA) Tel: 021 421 0011 TISA is a voluntary trade association representing the interests of manufacturers, importers and exporters of tobacco products, leaf dealers and tobacco growers.
  • Fair Trade Independent Tobacco Association (FITA) Represents smaller manufacturers in the tobacco industry in Southern Africa
  • Black Tobacco Farmers Association (BTFA) BFTA is constituted by black emerging tobacco farmers from different parts of the country

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 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 in the “Agricultural education & training” chapter or at (under “Skills delivery” option).

ARC-Industrial Crops (ARC-IC) Tel: 014 536 3150 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

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

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.

Companies involved


Producer organisations

  • Limpopo Tobacco Processors Tel: 014 596 5090
  • Universal Leaf South Africa Tel: 014 596 5202


Cigarette manufacturers, importers and distributors


Leaf merchants

  • Alliance One International (Dimon SA) Tel: 011 447 2467
  • Tobacco Traders Tel: 021 701 0025
  • Universal Leaf South Africa (Pty) Ltd – ULSA Tel: 014 596 5202 Universal plays a dual role as producer as well as trader. ULSA has contracts with growers mainly in the Limpopo Province and Gamtoos Valley who grow Dark air-cured tobacco for them.
  • Universal Leaf Africa – ULA Tel: 011 361 2600


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.

See also websites like and

Websites and publications

Visit the websites listed on this page e.g. and

The Field Guide For Tobacco Diseases In SA is out of print; find out if it is available in electronic format. These can be ordered from or by phoning the ARC-IC, Rustenburg at 014 536 3150. The ARC-IC also has a library where much literature concerning tobacco, with all its disciplines, is available.

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

Find the Info Pak “Tobacco (air-cured) and “Tobacco production guidelines”under the Resource centre and publications menu options on

The website of the Framework Convention Alliance for Tobacco Control is

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

Van Loggerenberg J. 2019. Tobacco wars. Cape Town: Tafelberg Publishing. Available at

Snyckers T. 2020. Dirty Tobacco: Spies, Lies and Mega-Profits. Cape Town: NB Publishers.


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