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Traditional Nyeri tobacco sellers making a 'kill' from venture

Workers package tobacco products at a warehouse in Nyeri. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

While government and non-governmental organisations have continually launched campaigns to discourage tobacco sales, a section of sellers are still clinging to the business. They are not about to quit.

In Nyeri town, Park Lane between the Nyeri Central police line and Nyeri stage is one of the indications that shows that the business is still booming despite the anti-campaign against tobacco use.

The street is flurried with activities as laborers prepare the tobacco for use with interruptions of buyers who mostly buy the commodity wrapped with dry banana stalks.

Charles Kiboi is one of the owners of tobacco-selling premises and has two employees who help him prepare tobacco for sale.

Kiboi, 64, says he has been in the business since 1975. His grandfather introduced him to the business.

He sells tobacco in retail and wholesale and distributes it to Murang’a, Meru and Kirinyaga counties, where he has about 100 customers.

“I tried abandoning the business and that is when I realised how lucrative it is. Despite all the campaigns, residents still flock here,” said Kiboi.

He said the trade has educated all his children, and built him a decent house worth Sh1 million and land worth Sh6 million.

“In one month, I can sell up to five sacks of tobacco with each containing 50 kilograms going for Sh7,500. This totals to  Sh37,500,” said Kiboi.

Kiboi notes that 50 kilogrammes of tobacco earn him a profit of Sh5,000.

Smokeless tobacco snuff. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

For every three kilogrammes, he uses a litre of edible oil and a quarter of soda ash to make the end product more compressed and to give it a shelf life of about two months.

He explained that once the tobacco is harvested, the first process is usually curing where the tobacco leaves are exposed to sunlight.

Once the curing is done, the product is ready for smoking.

However, for chewing purposes, it is crushed before it is mixed with the edible oil and soda ash where wrapping of the final product is done.

“We use banana stalk because it retains the original flavour while the use of normal polythene papers may expose the product to moisture,” added Kiboi.

Most of his clients, both young and old, prefer tobacco over cigarettes and alcohol.

“The product has no added chemicals, it is pure. The sector has no cartels since I connect directly with the farmers, all that is needed in the sector is patience,” said Kiboi.

Pius Lomonjo, another entrepreneur based at the five famous tobacco-selling joints claimed that tobacco has no health implications. 

“I have consumed raw tobacco for over 20 years and I have never had any health condition, it is better than cigarettes,” claimed Lomonjo.

But data from the World Health Organization (WHO) indicate nearly one in two children breathe air polluted by tobacco smoke. 

According to WHO, 65,000 youngsters die each year from illnesses related to secondhand smoke. Experts also warn smoking while pregnant can lead to several life-long health conditions for babies.

Tobacco pouches for sale in Nyeri. [Mose Sammy, Standard]

The nicotine contained in tobacco is highly addictive and tobacco use is a major risk factor for cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Further, smoking causes over 20 different types or subtypes of cancer, and many other debilitating health conditions, according to WHO.

According to Dr Hilary Ngigi, tobacco can cause cancer on many parts of the body including lips, tongue, mouth, nose, oesophagus, throat, voice box, stomach, liver, kidney, pancreas, bladder, lungs and stomach.

He says the product can also cause cardiovascular disease such as heart disease and stroke.

“Smoking tobacco increases the risk of blood clots, which block blood flow to the heart, brain or legs. It can lead to amputation,” warns Dr Ngigi.

Other effects include weakening of immune system, dental problems, vision loss and fertility issues.

Tobacco farming also contibutes a lot to harsh climatic conditions through deforestation, loss of biodiversity, soil erosion and degradation, water pollution, and increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide,” says Dr Ngigi.