Harare - Zimbabwe's tobacco-selling season opened on Wednesday with beneficiaries of President Robert Mugabe's land reform programme forming the majority of those who brought their bundles to be sold at market.
Agriculture Minister Joseph Made said the farmers who cultivate small plots were expected to deliver the bulk of the crop, saying it was vindication of the controversial expropriation of thousands of white-owned farms.
"This is a clear achievement of our land reform programme," Made said at the opening of the auction sale in the capital Harare.
"It is expected that during the marketing season more than half of the tobacco will come from small-scale farmers, that is communal and A1 (small-scale) farmers who now constitute 82% of the total registered farmers," he added.
Long, winding lines of pick-up trucks and lorries carrying massive bales formed outside the Tobacco Sales Floor, with some the farmers having arrived at the auctions as early as 3:00 am.
Vanessa Kabukuta, a 51-year old grower, expressed satisfaction at this year's price.
"The price is better, not bad," she told AFP.
"This year I decided to bring my crop earlier because last year the prices dropped to less than $3.00 per kilogramme midway through the season."
Kabukuta brought 23 bales to sell at the opening of the sales, up from 14 last year.
Another farmer Tendai Muchakagara, 43, sat on top of the bales of tobacco as he waited for the start of the sale.
"The price is not that bad, but as you know the early bird catches the fattest worm," he said. "I will bring the rest midway in the season. I will use the proceeds to buy fertiliser and other chemicals."
Zimbabwe's farming sector used to be dominated by white-minority landowners before Mugabe embarked on his land reform programme a decade ago.
The often-chaotic campaign has seen 4 500 farms expropriated by the state after being seized by people claiming to be veterans of the liberation war.
Mugabe has justified the programme as a means to address colonial imbalances but critics say it contributed to the country's economic collapse, with few of the small farmers having either the necessary tools or training.
Tobacco production and earnings declined sharply in the years immediately following the start of the programme but it has begun to recover.
This year Zimbabwe is expected to sell over 170 million kilogrammes of the golden leaf, up from 123 million kilogrammes last year. Last year, the crop earned the country $384m.
Government figures show that China bought 40% of the total tobacco exports from the southern African nation at an average price of $2.88 per kilogramme.
Tobacco accounts for more than 50% of agricultural exports, which amounts to about 30% of Zimbabwe's total exports.