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Tobacco-free farms launched in Kenya

Hundreds of farmers in Migori County, Kenya will break free from risky tobacco farming and transition to producing more sustainable crops, through the Tobacco-Free Farms Project

The project is a joint initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO), the World Food Programme, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), in collaboration with the Government of Kenya.

Tobacco as a cash crop contributes less than 1% of Kenya’s GDP. Its farmers and their families are exposed to serious health risks through nicotine absorbed through the skin when handling wet tobacco leaves, exposure to heavy use of pesticides and to tobacco dust. Tobacco growing is also associated with increased gender inequality, deforestation, soil degradation, and contamination of water supplies.

In Migori, farmers have planted high-iron beans as an alternative crop, with UN agencies and government providing training, quality inputs such as seeds and fertilisers, and a ready market for the harvest, through the World Food Programme’s (WFP’s) local procurement initiatives. This support helps farmers to stop tobacco-growing contractual agreements and switch to alternative food crops that will help feed communities instead of harming their health, with confidence that a long-term market exists.

The Ministry of Health is delighted to see farmers move away from what is a health hazard for them and their families and towards more eco-friendly farming practices. In addition to maintaining livelihoods, the project is expected to improve the health of farmers in Migori and their families, and reduce their medical expenses.

Health cabinet secretary Mutahi Kagwe said the government and his Ministry in particular is supportive of such projects that put the health of Kenyans first.  Kagwe noted that the government was working towards attaining Universal Health Coverage for all Kenyans and any projects that would reduce or alleviate medical expenses for Kenyans are most welcome.

“The project in Migori for the tobacco farmers is a major shift towards attaining a healthy nation and the Ministry of Health fully supports such ventures,” Kagwe added. 

The Ministry of Agriculture echoed these sentiments, with agriculture cabinet secretary Peter Munya adding, “You can do what I cannot do, I can do what you cannot do. Together we can do great things.’ This quote by Mother Theresa aptly applies in this context of Tobacco-Free Farms Project, where each partner - from the farmer to County Government of Migori and National Government - plays a crucial role of promoting food and nutrition security, enhancing farmer incomes, conserving environment and ultimately reducing poverty.”

Kenya is the first country selected to roll out this project, encouraging as a key player in the fight against the tobacco epidemic. Over the last few months, we have seen hundreds of long-time tobacco farmers to switch to alternative crops, participate in training, and plant high-iron beans in fields where tobacco once grew. The project has seen farmers' health improve, increased school attendance from children previously working on the farms, and better crops for the environment replacing tobacco.

Farmer groups that participated in the project sold 135 mt of beans to the World Food Programme, delivering them significantly more income compared to tobacco farming.

“WFP, and the Farm to Market Alliance, work to raise smallholder farmers' income and improve their livelihoods by building sustainable food systems that advance food security for all,” said Simon Cammelbeeck, managing director of Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA). “WFP has provided a ready market for high iron beans, promoted good agricultural practices, nutrition sensitization, and post-harvest loss training. FtMA’s demand aggregation model has helped farmers benefit from economies of scale in input and output sales.”

More than 6,000 Kenyans die of tobacco-related diseases every year. An estimated 220,000 children and 2,737,000 adults use tobacco each day in the country. Tobacco kills more than 8 million people around the world every year. Over one million of those deaths are attributed to exposure to second-hand smoke.