In the heart of Busia County, Sarah Ikarot Papa, 46, stands as a symbol of hope for women overcoming the challenges of tobacco farming. Sarah is one of over 2500 farmers across four Kenyan counties transitioning from growing tobacco to high-iron beans through the Tobacco-Free Farms initiative. Sarah’s story of resilience unfolds highlighting the transformation it has meant in her family’s life and for her community.
Introduced to tobacco farming in 2000 by her husband, Sarah faced insurmountable struggles, vividly recalling days when providing for her family was a challenge. “I remember there were days I could not afford to buy clothes or support my children,” says Sarah.
Her son, Allan Ojolong Papa, echoes the difficulties of tobacco farming and its impact on education. “At times, my dad would stop us from going to school so that we work on the farms. It was so discouraging,” he admits. Yet, in those moments of doubt, a resolve emerged within him. “I would think to myself, well, if I don’t do this, I won’t be able to go to school, and I’ll be chased away,” Allan reflects. “This is what I used to pay my fees.”
Tobacco farming requires a lot more manual labour than high-iron beans and many more months of labour, often requiring the entire family support to tend to the fields and cure the tobacco leaves. The tobacco crop also harms the soil and poisons nearby water bodies, with nicotine seeping deep into the ground.
Sarah recognized these challenges and strengthened her resolve to secure her family’s future, which led her to embrace high-iron bean farming.
Through the Tobacco-Free Farms initiative, a joint UN effort by WHO, WFP, and FAO, Sarah found empowerment in an alternative livelihood. Transitioning to high-iron beans brought a significant turnaround. “I bought five packets of seeds, planted in a quarter-acre, and harvested 54kgs,” says Sarah, who used the proceeds to support her daughter’s education and clear her son’s school fees. With her harvest, Sarah can feed her children and provide for her community– offering a healthy, locally produced crop.
The initiative has created an enabling environment for farmers to shift away from tobacco through a supportive crop production and market-driven ecosystem. In partnership with Farm to Market Alliance (FtMA) and the Ministry of Agriculture, the initiative is providing access to inputs, delivering training, and aggregating crops all within walking distance of the farmers’ homes. This type of support is what allows farmers to access lucrative markets for their alternative crops, deciding to shift away from tobacco is an easy one. This is a stark contrast to tobacco farming which often ends with farmers indebted to the tobacco industry or the entity selling them the crop because of little return from the crop.
Sarah, now a vocal advocate for high-iron beans, highlights their dual benefits as a source of food and income. She emphasizes the quicker return on investment and the nutritional value of high-iron beans, a stark contrast to the demanding and less rewarding nature of tobacco farming.
This ambitious endeavor not only seeks to break the chains of tobacco farming but also to empower farmers with sustainable alternatives that bring financial prosperity and food security, heralding a future where agriculture is both economically viable and environmentally sustainable.
The Tobacco-Free Farms initiative is rewriting the narrative for farmers and their families one success story at a time, and how its impact extends far beyond individual fields, fostering a ripple effect of positive change across communities.
Watch the “Tobacco Slave” film to learn more about how farmers grow debt while tobacco companies grow profit.