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Costs, revenues and profits: an economic analysis of smallholder tobacco farmer livelihoods in Malawi
  1. Donald Makoka1,
  2. Jeffrey Drope2,
  3. Adriana Appau3,
  4. Ronald Labonte4,
  5. Qing Li2,
  6. Fastone Goma5,
  7. Richard Zulu5,
  8. Peter Magati6,
  9. Raphael Lencucha3
  1. 1 Centre for Agricultural Research and Development, Lilongwe, Malawi
  2. 2 Economic and Health Policy Research, American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Georgia, USA
  3. 3 Faculty of Medicine, McGill University, School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  4. 4 Institute of Population Health, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
  5. 5 Faculty of Medicine, University of Zambia, Lusaka, Zambia
  6. 6 Department of Economics, University of Nairobi, Nairobi, Kenya
  1. Correspondence to Dr Raphael Lencucha, Faculty of Medicine, McGill University, School of Physical and Occupational Therapy, 3630 Promenade Sir William Osler, Montreal, Quebec, Canada, H3G 1Y5; raphael.lencucha{at}


Background The preservation of the economic livelihood of tobacco farmers is a common argument used to oppose tobacco control measures. However, little empirical evidence exists about these livelihoods. We seek to evaluate the economic livelihoods of individual tobacco farmers in Malawi, including how much money they earn from selling tobacco, and the costs they incur to produce the crop, including labour inputs. We also evaluate farmers' decisions to contract directly with firms that buy their crops.

Methods We designed and implemented an economic survey of 685 tobacco farmers, including both independent and contract farmers, across the 6 main tobacco-growing districts. We augmented the survey with focus group discussions with subsets of respondents from each region to refine our inquiries.

Results Contract farmers cultivating tobacco in Malawi as their main economic livelihoods are typically operating at margins that place their households well below national poverty thresholds, while independent farmers are typically operating at a loss. Even when labour is excluded from the calculation of income less costs, farmers' gross margins place most households in the bottom income decile of the overall population. Tobacco farmers appear to contract principally as a means to obtain credit, which is consistently reported to be difficult to obtain.

Conclusions The tobacco industry narrative that tobacco farming is a lucrative economic endeavour for smallholder farmers is demonstrably inaccurate in the context of Malawi. From the perspective of these farmers, tobacco farming is an economically challenging livelihood for most.

  • Economics
  • Low/Middle income country
  • Tobacco industry

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  • Contributors DM, JD, FG, RZ, PM, RLe and RLa contributed to the study design. DM drafted the survey tool. JD, FG, RZ, PM, RLe and RLa contributed to subsequent refinement of the survey tool. DM collected the survey data. DM, RLe and PM contributed to the focus group design and data collection. DM, JD, AA and QL completed the statistical analysis. DM, JD, AA and RLe wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All team members contributed to the writing of the manuscript. JD led the revision. RLe submitted the manuscript on behalf of the team.

  • Funding This work was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Fogarty International Center and the National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health under award number R01DA035158.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Ethics approval IRB of Morehouse School of Medicine.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.