Johannesburg - Tobacco merchants in Zimbabwe expect sales to increase by 21 percent this year as cotton farmers switch crops to capitalise on higher prices for the leaves, the Tobacco Industry and Marketing Board said.

Sales at the auctions, which begin on February 13, are expected to total 170 million kilograms (375 million pounds), compared with 140 million kilograms last year, Chief Executive Officer Andrew Matibiri said in a February 7 phone interview from the capital, Harare. Last year’s output missed a target of 150 million kilograms, he said.

“There has been a gradual increase in growers and expected output because a number of cotton farmers in areas such as Gokwe, some in Mashonaland West in Karoi, Kadoma and Chegutu have switched from cotton growing to tobacco as a result of good pricing,” he said.

Zimbabwe is the world’s fourth-biggest exporter of flue- cured tobacco, after Brazil, India and the US, according to Universal Corp.-Virginia, the largest leaf merchant.

The crop is the country’s main agricultural export.

The flue-cured variety, the top quality tobacco, is used to provide flavor to brands like Marlboro and Benson and Hedges, and vies with the US for quality.

The crop is expected to fetch average prices of $3.50 to $5 per kilogram, little changed from last year, Matibiri said.

Brazilian production of flue-cured tobacco fell 17 percent to 590 million kilograms in 2012, while Indian output dropped 1.8 percent to 273 million kilograms and the US harvest grew 21 percent in 2012, according to Universal.

All three countries are expected to boost production this year, it said.

More Growers

The number of growers in Zimbabwe has increased to 72,000, compared with 60,000 a year earlier, Matibiri said.

Tobacco production in the southern African nation, which once ranked as the second-largest exporter, has slumped since 2000.

That year President Robert Mugabe began seizing mainly white-owned farms for distribution to blacks deprived of land during colonial rule.

The country earned a record $517 million from tobacco sales last year, according to the Finance Ministry. - Bloomberg