Zimbabwe is seeking to move away from using firewood and switch to gas to cure tobacco in a bid to curb deforestation, the country’s tobacco industry regulator says.

The Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board (TIMB) said it is seeking gas technology companies to partner with it in establishing a centralised gas curing facility for tobacco.

According to the TIMB, of the 262,000 hectares lost to deforestation in the country every year, 15 to 20% of this is attributable to tobacco growing, particularly curing.

The TIMB said the centralised gas facility should allow for multiple farmers to cure their tobacco at the same time.

The partner is required to develop a pilot project which can be replicated in other tobacco-growing areas, the TIMB said.

TIMB spokesperson Chelesani Moyo said that the regulator wants to promote sustainable tobacco production by finding alternatives for curing the crop.

“This is one of the sustainable curing initiatives which we are considering as a Board. Sustainable tobacco production is the efficient production of quality tobacco, under conditions that limit the negative impact on the environment.

“This also entails the best agricultural practices that improve the socio-economic conditions of tobacco growers and communities in tobacco-producing areas,” Moyo said.

Tobacco growing areas have been exposed to serious deforestation over the years as the ballooning number of tobacco farmers resort to indiscriminate cutting down of trees to cure the golden leaf.

Major international buyers, such as Philip Morris, no longer buy coal-cured tobacco, and have instead encouraged growers to use sustainably-grown wood for curing.

But a switch away from wood will unlikely be swift, given the rising costs of gas and the number of tobacco farmers.

According to TIMB, Zimbabwe has over 160,000 tobacco farmers, with 1,094 new farmers registering to grow tobacco this year, down from 2,121 last season.

Tobacco is one of Zimbabwe’s major foreign currency earners.

Last year, the country sold 186.6 million kg of tobacco leaf valued at 515.9 million U.S. dollars, up 16.8 percent in volume and 31 percent in value over sales in 2020.