Semi-permanent houses, tucked between maize and tobacco farms punctuate much of Uriri Sub-County, Migori County.
Occasionally, naked children play by the roadsides as their parents are seen hurdled in groups, perhaps discussing what the future holds for them.
Most of these people are tobacco farmers. But fortunes in the sector have continued to dwindle by the day due to local and global factors.
Migori is the biggest tobacco producer in Kenya, accounting for more than 70 percent of the yields produced in the country, according to Alliance One Tobacco, a leaf-buying organisation. But today, the county has nothing to show for that feat.
The industry was collectively paying out over Sh1.7 billion annually to farmers in the region. Alliance Tobacco Kenya was spending Sh1.2 billion on Migori farmers annually.
But now, poverty is evident in regions where tobacco was once grown, stretching from Kuria East, to Kuria West, Suna West, Uriri and Rongo sub-counties.
The once flourishing cash crop is dying away; imposing makeshift mabati (iron sheets) buying shades which were constructed by the tobacco multinationals have been vandalised while the remaining ones have been taken over by the farmers’ co-operative societies.
While some farmers have already quit tobacco farming altogether, others are still hanging on, hoping for miracles.
Mr Otieno Osoro, 43, from Wang’ Chieng’ village in Uriri remembers the days when tobacco farming posted better returns.
“We used to make good money when the sector was booming but now it is a pale shadow of its former self. The firms have introduced many grading systems which only help the companies to pay us peanuts,” he said.
“I used to plant tobacco on my three acres farm but now [I] am only allocating one acre to tobacco. The remaining space is set for food crops,” Mr Osoro added.
Leaf hawkers who operate in collusion with the tobacco firm officials have also spoilt the business, he claims.
Mr Olima Omondi said the pay today is too little. “We are paid about Sh70 per kilo, from the previous Sh180 per kilo. Companies complain that the quality of leaf from Kenya is no longer attractive in the world market.”
“From my two-acre farm, I can only make Sh40,000 – which cannot feed my family of six children and pay their fees,” Mr Omondi said.
Tobacco matures in six months. Mr Masel Oyugi however says tobacco is their main cash crop despite the frustrations.
“We need more companies here to buy our leaf… the exit of Alliance One from the Kenyan market has left British American Tobacco Kenya Limited (BAT) to enjoy monopoly and to singularly decide what to pay us,” he asserted.
He says the firm inputs they are being given by the BAT Kenya usually eat into their earnings, a claim the company refutes.
“We pay a lot for the fertilisers which are deducted from our delivery dues and leaves the farmer with nothing to take home. And this is why most farmers are scavenging for alternative cash crops,” Mr Oyugi said.
But BAT Kenya has come out to deny claims of frustrating their contracted farmers.
The firm’s manager at Oyani Leaf centre in Migori – Denis Sila – said they were giving their farmers the best treatment.
“We have challenges but we are trying our best. Of course we cannot buy all the tobacco being produced by farmers because we have our own targets as a company,” he said.
Mr Sila explained that he will investigate claims of corruption in the purchase of leaf from growers.
“We do not take bribes in order to buy the cash crop from farmers because we have a binding contract with them…but we will investigate the allegations,” the official added.
Mr John Ochola of the Oyani Tobacco Farmers Sacco is telling farmers not to lose hope.
“We will continue to engage BAT leadership to improve our terms of payment. Although we know leaf prices are dictated by the world market, but there is something that can still be done,” he said.
The Migori County Government has already threatened to kick out tobacco companies that have consistently failed to pay farmers dues on time.
Agriculture Executive Valentine Ogongo said the county administration “will not sit back and watch farmers suffer every year due to delayed payment”.
Mastermind Tobacco allegedly owes local leaf growers over Sh50 million while a tobacco merchant – Eastoback – has alleged unpaid delivery dues amounting to Sh7 million.
“This is the last warning to the two companies. Cooperate with our farmers or go elsewhere,” he told the representatives of the two companies in his office.
Mr Ogongo said only BAT Kenya “was trying to pay their dues on time”.
“The assembly is soon passing Tobacco Control Bill which will give us powers to register afresh, firms allowed to operate in this county,” Mr Ogongo said.
Representatives of the companies said they were making arrangements to offset the dues in the coming weeks.
But this may not save the ailing sector as over 10,000 tobacco growers in the county are already switching to other cash crops which can fetch them quick money. Some have gone into large-scale maize farming while others are planting cane.
“In the absence of a serious leaf merchant who can pay us on time, tobacco is a doomed crop. I have uprooted the leaves on my farm to create space for cane,” Mr Brodrick Kowino from Uriri Sub-County said.
But not all the tobacco leaves produced by farmers in the region is being bought, companies are citing low quality.
Subsequently, thousands of acres of the tobacco grown in Suna West, Kuria West and Kuria East sub-counties risk going to waste unless a new tobacco buyer came to the rescue of the growers.
“The future looks very bleak. We do not know who will buy our tobacco in the farms,” Mr Augustine Mwita, the national chairman of the Kenya Tobacco Growers Association, said.
“We are asking both the county and national Governments to speed up the process to look for us a new investor who is able to buy all our cash crop,” he said.
The farmer’s woes were compounded by the exit of Alliance One Tobacco Company four years ago, and which was the biggest leaf buyer in the county. The firm moved to Uganda and Zimbabwe two years ago, citing poor leaf quality in Kenya.
Mr Owino Likowa, a former Migori MP says tobacco farming is turning into a liability to farmers in the county.
“Poor pay, coupled with health risks one is exposed to while attending to their farms has made the business less lucrative. Farmers must just switch to other cash crops for meaningful benefits,” he noted.
The declining fortunes in the sector have seen massive layoffs by the tobacco firms within the last 10 years.