Move by BAT is likely to lift area farmers whose fortunes dived several years ago when company scaled down operations.
When BAT Kenya wound up business in Migori County five years ago, the future of thousands of tobacco growers dimmed.
Alliance One Tobacco (Kenya), too, folded and relocated parts of its business to Tanzania and Uganda.
Majority of farmers started to diversify to other crops while others quit tobacco farming. But the situation is now set to change.
BAT is now planning a comeback in the region, including reopening some of its closed leaf buying centres in Migori and Homabay counties.
The firm said it will continue investing in its operations including leaf growing as part of its commitment to Kenya and in line with its growth and sustainability agenda.
“As a leading manufacturer and contributor to the government’s Big Four Agenda, BAT Kenya has made sustained year-on-year investments in its business,” Head of Corporate Affairs and Sustainability Willis Angira told Weekend Business.
He said the fresh move is meant to support tobacco farmers in the areas where they currently operate.
BAT had leaf centres in Kuria West and Kuria East. But it leased them to Alliance One Tobacco firm when it closed shop in the area.
The firm’s headquarters in Rongo Town has also been lying idle for almost a decade, with huge stores and administrative offices underutilised.
BAT only retained Oyani leaf buying centre. Now they plan to either open new branch offices or take back leased premises.
The news has triggered joy among some farmers who had abandoned tobacco as a “poverty crop”.
Marwa Matiko says they may reconsider their venture into other crops such as sorghum and sweet potatoes if BAT comes back with new incentives.
“Our interest will be in fast-maturing tobacco variety, good prices and ways to protect farmers against the crop’s health hazards, among others,” he said.
Another farmer, Mwita Maroa, recalled how farmers lost Sh1.2 billion that Alliance One Tobacco had been paying them annually after the firm closed operations. Over 500 locals lost jobs.
Mr Angira says in the past five years, BAT has invested over Sh180 million in various aspects, including innovative tobacco leaf curing barns which are safer and more efficient.
“BAT Kenya has and will continuously invest in its tobacco farming operations as part of its global sustainable agriculture programme,” he said.
The company also expects to increase investments in farm inputs and provision of interest-free loans for procurement of farm inputs such as high-quality fertilizers and pesticides.
“We will also improve harvesting and curing facilities such as hessians, iron sheets and personal protective equipment for farmers,” said Angira.
BAT’s contracted farmers produced 8.9 million kilogrammes of tobacco and a net pay of Sh1.46 billion in 2018.
The same year, over 700 farmers received Sh35 million for crop losses due to adverse weather conditions including hail, drought and flooding, according to the company.