Tobacco is Malawi’s most important cash crop, accounting for 60% of the country’s export earnings, and Lilongwe is the centre of this vital industry. Most activity takes place in the Kanengo Industrial Area on the northern side of Lilongwe, the site of several tobacco-processing factories and the huge and impressive tobacco auction rooms.
Large-scale tobacco farming started in the area around Lilongwe in the 1920s and has grown steadily in importance ever since. Two types of tobacco are produced in Malawi: ‘flue’, which is a standard-quality leaf, and higher-quality ‘burley’, which is in demand by cigarette manufacturers around the world.
Tobacco is grown on large plantations or by individual farmers on small farms. The leaves are harvested and dried, either naturally in the sun or in a heated drying room, and then brought to Lilongwe for sale (in southern Malawi the crops go to auction in Limbe).
In the auction rooms (called auction ‘floors’) auctioneers sell tobacco on behalf of the growers. It’s purchased by dealers who resell to the tobacco processors. The tobacco comes onto the floors in large bales and is displayed in long lines. Moisture content determines the value of the leaves: if the tobacco is too dry, the flavour is impaired; if it’s too wet, mould will set in and the bale is worthless.
A small proportion of tobacco is made into cigarettes for the local market, but most gets processed in Malawi before being exported to be made into cigarettes abroad. Most processed tobacco goes by road to Durban (South Africa), to be shipped around the world.