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Inside Sokoto’s tobacco economy

As we made the final approach to Sanyinna, tree leaves hanging low 100 meters ahead of us seemed to form a semicircle. This is a…

As we made the final approach to Sanyinna, tree leaves hanging low 100 meters ahead of us seemed to form a semicircle. This is a gate formed by nature and it is an inspiring entrance to Sanyinna, the centre of tobacco farming in Sokoto State.

The community was slowly waking up as we arrived. We saw pupils and students in uniforms walking along the streets, a young man drawing water from a well, a camel being led down the main road, and townspeople sitting in corners drinking tea. And there was a hint of harmattan in the air.

When we got to the farms after a brief ride on motorcycles, we were told that there were a number of stages in the cultivation of tobacco, which is known as taba in Hausa.


Growing tobacco

Commenting on the process, Bello Sanyinna, a tobacco farmer said, “After buying the seeds, before putting it in the soil we spread chemicals. After putting chemicals we now put the seeds and cover it with maize stalks for a week, then we remove the cover, and seeds would have grown. They will provide it with water for five weeks and it will grow. We will now transplant it and add manure. After applying manure, it will grow as tall as a person. At this point, we will now remove the leaves.”

There are numerous tobacco farms around us and the farmers are busy in each one of them. We see the young tobacco crop growing under the sunshine. Then there are farms where we see a more mature version of the crop, then an older form in other farms, which has a beautiful flower at its top.

Military past

Sanyinna has an interesting history. Its origin can be traced to the Jihad of 1804 when it became a military camp. Today, Sanyinna is famous on account of tobacco farming, but it also looks fondly upon its military past.

The head of the community, Shehu Garba Ardon Sanyinna said, “Firstly, during Usman Dan Fodio’s caliphate, this place was established as a military camp for western Sokoto. That’s why we are being called the western gate of the Sokoto caliphate. This is an important position between us and Kebbi.”

“Shehu and his companions used to send horses, bows, arrows and so on here. Sanyinna is well over 200 years old.” We visit on Fridays; and there is much activity around the palace.

 Everyone is a tobacco farmer

Almost everyone in Sanyinna is a tobacco farmer; and the locals are proud of this heritage. The crop is widely grown here, but little of it is consumed by inhabitants.

Mansur Aliyu Sanyinna, a dealer in tobacco, explained how he networked with his customers: “My customers will call and ask if I have tobacco leaves. They will mention the number of bags they need. One company can ask for 700 bags and I will supply it without any delay. If it is time for harvesting, we can even get more than 2,000 bags in one day.”

And there is a huge market for tobacco in Enugu and Ibadan, he said, adding that buyers also come from Niger Republic. “They come in every Friday to buy tobacco and return to sell. They are big merchants.”



 Role of the British

Tobacco farming was introduced to the community by the British colonial authority.

Sanyinna also said, “The soil is good for the cultivation of tobacco; it was introduced to us by the British who surveyed the land and saw that the soil was rich for the cultivation of tobacco. This was over 80 years ago.”

In early November, sunshine falls upon the crop and farmers, giving the fields a pleasant glow. It is an impressive sight.

We were later taken to Hurumi, the vast part of Sanyinna where the cultivation of tobacco was first initiated by the British.

 Benefits of tobacco

The tobacco economy has been of great benefit to the inhabitants of Sanyinna.  Bello Sanyinna said, “We are grateful to Allah for this tobacco. I don’t have a bigger trade or occupation than tobacco farming. Whatever you extract right from the seed is tobacco.  I use both fresh and dried parts to provide for my needs.”

Muhammadu Sanyinna, another tobacco farmer, goes down memory lane: “I have spent over 60 years in this occupation. When I was a child I carried it using baskets; we later carried it using donkeys. Now, we put it in sacks.”

He provided a picture of how one part of the trade evolved over time.

 Large family

Umaru Sarkin Taba talked about the changes he had experienced on account of his involvement in the tobacco business, saying, “I have three wives and 22 children. I have built a house and been to Mecca. The tobacco trade has helped to fund all my activities. Through this business, I have been able to fund the education of my children from primary up to secondary school.”

Speaking in the same vein, Abdullahi Abubakar Sanyinna, the chairman of tobacco farmers said, “Tobacco has done everything for me. I have travelled to Saudi Arabia and also sponsored my wife.”


The tobacco trade in Sanyinna faces a number of challenges.

Shehu Ardon Sanyinna said, “We don’t have enough buyers. If we had other tobacco companies, maybe they would give us encouragement. We need encouragement if this trade is to grow.”

 It can last 30 years

Tobacco is resilient and can last for many years. On this, Shehu Ardon Sanyinna said, “Believe me, we won’t stop growing tobacco, whether there are sufficient buyers or not because you can keep it for 30 years and it won’t go bad. Once it is dry, nothing will happen to it.”

Sanyinna is the capital of the tobacco growing area of Sokoto State. It is also a fairly well watered region.

“Other communities come in to buy seedlings from us, but this is the main growing area of tobacco in Sokoto State.

“We have people in Shinkafi and even Kabe district who grow tobacco. They come from Illela to buy seedlings and grow there. Illela is just three kilometres to Niger. Part of Isa also grows Tobacco, but Sanyinna is the capital of tobacco in Sokoto State,” Shehu Sanyinna added.

Tobacco market

Buyers arrive from distant towns to purchase the crop at Sanyinna, especially on Friday, which is the market day. The atmosphere is festive as the locals bring out their harvest all day long. Every minute, somebody arrives with bags of the crop. Some bring it on camels while others use vehicles or even wheelbarrows.

Ardon Sanyinna explained the place of the crop in the lives of the locals thus: “On the market day, if I have sacks of tobacco in my house I will bring two out and sell, then buy grain, rice and meat, as well as ingredients to feed my family.

“There are big dealers within Sanyinna and other places. There was one big dealer from Enugu who died recently. He used to buy over 500 tonnes of tobacco whenever he visited.”

 Well regulated market

The tobacco trade takes place in an open space within Sanyinna market. It is well regulated; and there are penalties for offenders. It is striking that simple rural folk are able to maintain harmony in their market.

Muhammadu Dan Fati Sanyinna, an official in the tobacco trade said, “Anybody who breaks the law will be handed over to the judge. If an erring individual has to be suspended for a while, it will be done.”


Farmers make a number of requests from the government. To this end, Bello Sanyinna pleaded, “We want the government to extend a helping hand to us. They should provide us with fertiliser and insecticides. The crop is often affected by insects regularly making holes on its stem.”

Umar Sarkin Taba also said, “Every farmer needs help, either to get manure or something that will support him to improve on cultivation,” adding that there are more than 1,000 farmers in Sokoto State.”

Mansur Sanyinna also called on the government to help them with fertiliser and tube wells to water the crop.”

 Female farmers

Female tobacco farmers are also present. Although they in a small number, they are visible and active.

Hauwa’u Umaru, one of the female tobacco farmers said, “I used to employ labourers to handle my farm work. I have a keen interest in tobacco farming. When my husband died, I got an opportunity to buy more farms. I now came out to do the farming myself.

“I have women who grind tobacco and prepare it for sale, but not those who convey it somewhere to sell. It is the type consumed by both males and females. They purchase in sacks and refine it to be ready for smoking.’’

Tobacco is used in different ways by various groups in Sanyinna community. Umaru Sarkin Taba admitted, “Even now, some people are chewing it. But in the advanced world the children are not chewing it, they take it as cigarette. It is also prepared as snuff.

But the 2022 floods affected some of the tobacco and rice farms because a number of rivers supply water to the community.

The crop is mainly grown in the Fadama area of Sanyinna. It forms part of dry season farming. Crops such as onions and rice are also grown in large quantities in the community.

Shehu Ardon Sanyinna revealed, “We use Fadama areas only to grow the crop. Tobacco cannot grow where there is no Fadama. Water is very important, but tobacco doesn’t consume a lot of it. We plant it when the rainy season is over, when we would have cultivated corn, millet and so on.”

Also, tubes and pumps are important requirements in tobacco farming in Sanyinna, and the farmers said as much. Machines are needed to pump water to the farms in Fadama areas. This is why there is a permanent humming sound around the farms all day long.

Despite the absence of a tobacco processing factory in Sanyinna, which many farmers long for, the future looks assured as many are involved in the business.

On the population of tobacco farmers in Sanyinna, Mansur Sanyinna said, “In this town, if you count 10 houses, eight of them plant tobacco leaves.”

Members of the community are hardworking and friendly.

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