A group of advocates of tobacco use control have denounced the deal Kenya’s President William Ruto made with South Korea to enhance tobacco trade, saying it will put more Kenyans at risk of diseases linked to the farming and use of the product.
The Kenya Tobacco Control Alliance (Ketca), an umbrella body of civil society organisations fighting tobacco use in the country, said the trade deal threatens to undo the progress made in reducing tobacco farming in the country.
Ketca said the agreement between Nairobi and Seoul is not only detrimental to the health of Kenyans, but also violates the Tobacco Control Act of 2007 which “commits the government to continually phase out tobacco farming in Kenya”.
“We ask the government to immediately cancel aspects of the Kenya-South Korea agreement that touch on tobacco,” Thomas Lindi, Ketca’s chief executive, said at a press conference in Nairobi on Wednesday.
President Ruto, after his first official visit to Seoul last week, announced that Kenya “commits to work together [with South Korea] in deepening and strengthening bilateral trade – especially in tea, coffee, and tobacco,” a move contradicting the very government’s efforts to phase out tobacco farming in the country.
“We have a major problem with this because it means Kenya will try and increase tobacco planting in the country,” Mr Lindi said.
In March 2022, the ministry of agriculture partnered with United Nations agencies – World Health Organisation, the World Food Programme and the Agriculture and Food Organisation – to initiate the ‘Tobacco-free farms’ project to help farmers shift from tobacco-farming.
The programme, piloted in Migori County, western Kenya, sought to provide farmers dependent on tobacco farming with seeds, fertilisers, and ready markets to help them shift to more sustainable crops such as maize and beans.
“The project is a major step towards attaining a healthy nation and the Ministry of Health fully supports such ventures,” said former Health minister Mutahi Kagwe during the launch of the programme.
His Agriculture counterpart at the time, Mr Peter Munya, said the project would go a long way in boosting the nation’s food security, in addition to keeping farmers healthy.
Ketca praised the move and encouraged a speedy expansion to other tobacco-growing regions, saying the government was finally honouring the requirements of the Tobacco Control Act.
Speaking to The EastAfrican in March, Ketca Chairman Joel Gitari said “Tobacco growing farmers must be given the necessary support to switch to alternative crops that have the potential to improve their health and livelihoods as well as reduce the supply of tobacco”.
“Every effort made to reduce tobacco use is good for the environment, the economy, the future and the country in general.”
Now, noting that the project has been very successful in Migori, Mr Gitari says the agreement with Seoul could avert the gains made even in Migori and prevent the extension of the project to other tobacco-growing regions.
“The government should be focusing on such positive moves instead of engaging in retrogressive activities because whatever it is doing is illegal and we’re losing the gains that we’ve made,” he said on Wednesday.
According to Ketca, tobacco use and farming will directly cause the deaths of more than 9,000 Kenyans by end 2022 and at least 40,000 others will be diagnosed with various forms of cancer.
“Numerous studies done in Kenya show tobacco farming is unprofitable, leaves farmers poor and sick,” Mr Lindi said.
A recent study by the University of Nairobi and the American Cancer Centre found that farmers in Migori, Busia, and Meru counties could earn on average Ksh80,000 ($697.47) more per acre from alternative crops like vegetables, grains and cereals, backing this claim.
According to the study, farmers in the tobacco-growing regions stuck to the crop because of “the structured supply chain of tobacco incentivises production” and due to lack of a ready market for the other crops.
The lobby now wants the government to completely discourage tobacco farming and use in the country by increasing excise duty on tobacco products, banning tobacco advertising and promoting health information and warnings against tobacco use.