By Tarisai Mandizha
Tobacco farmers have criticised the e-marketing system which has been marred by technical glitches amid claims the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (Timb) did not inform its constituency how the system works.
The electronic marketing system failed to take off on Wednesday at the official opening of the 2017 marketing season.
It has been on and off ever since.
The system is being introduced for the first time and will replace the manual auctioning of the golden leaf, a development which farmers allege has resulted in collusion among buyers who are offering low prices.
Tobacco farmers who spoke to Standardbusiness said they were not aware how the system worked. In addition, the farmers said it was slowing the process.
They said Timb should have conducted awareness campaigns to educate the farmers on the new system before the actual take off.
A farmer from Macheke, Webster Chatiza said the system was very slow and it now took longer to sell tobacco bales.
"We are really concerned. considering the time they are taking at each stage, will they manage to serve all of us?" he said, adding that authorities had not educated farmers on the new system.
"We haven't been educated on the e-marketing system. We only found out about the system here at the auction floors."
Chatiza said farmers did not know how the e marketing system worked or its intended benefit to them.
"The feeling we have is that we are being sidelined; the farmer is left in a corner while his tobacco is being auctioned and all we are seeing are big screens flashing numbers but to really understand what's going on, we have no idea," he said.
The opening price for tobacco for this season was $4,60 per kg.
Over the years, farmers have complained about low prices being offered at auction floors.
A farmer from Karoi, Tomas Danga said the e-marketing system was very slow and he was not sure if it will cater for all the farmers.
A farmer from Macheke, Netsai Mapuranga said no one had explained to them what the e-marketing system was and how it functioned.
"We don't understand what's going on, we are told we should check the screen for our tobacco sales and prices, but it's giving us challenges as we do not understand it," she said.
Farmers Development Trust executive director Lovegot Tendengu said there was need for government to set aside a budget to train and educate the tobacco farmers to understand the e-marketing system because it disadvantaged sellers.
"The e-marketing system is inevitable; we are now living in the era of technology for everything, so tobacco was the only commodity that was left behind on e-marketing," he said.
"We agree that we should have intensified our programme, we need to intensify training and we need to teach them what e-marketing is all about."
Tendengu said farmers were not trained on how the system operated.
"The farmers don't even know what is happening but they only know it's an alternative marketing system which is good for them because the middleman doesn't have a chance anymore," he said, cautioning against discarding the process as technology was the way to go.
"I don't think we can go back now, we are in and that's the way to go.
"But we must train people, train the buyer and train the farmer so there is need for government to allocate a budget for that.
"We cannot have technology without training the farmer," Tendengu said.
"Because they [farmers] don't understand what is happening, so we are not sure if they are not being disadvantaged because it's difficult to sell using a system that you don't understand."
He said farmers were likely to produce more than 200 million kgs of tobacco for the 2017 season.
Premier Tobacco Auction Floors managing director Philemon Mangena said farmers had raised concerns over the speed of the e-marketing system, as it was taking longer to serve them.
"So far we have received complaints from farmers on the slowness of the system," he said.
TIMB spokesperson Isheanesu Moyo said the body was committed to full implementation of the electronic marketing system.
"We had challenges during the official opening at Boka and we then advised all floors to revert to the conventional system so as to create a level playing field," he said.
"Whilst we await our Indian consultants to arrive, we will continue to use the electronic marketing system and we will revert to the manual way when we realise the system is inconveniencing farmers in terms of speed."
Moyo said TIMB had used the print and electronic media, trainings conducted in the districts, field days and the SMS platform to reach all registered farmers.
He said TIMB had also communicated through growers representatives as well as inviting farmers from the four major tobacco-producing provinces to witness mock sales.