In recent decades, transnational tobacco companies have shifted tobacco leaf cultivation from high-income to low-income countries, where 90% of tobacco farming now takes place. Eight of the ten ASEAN countries, excluding Singapore and Brunei, are engaged in tobacco cultivation on different scales. About 324,575 hectares of land was used for tobacco farming, producing a total of 517,323 million tonnes of tobacco leaves across the region in 2019.
Generally, the number of farmers employed in tobacco cultivation in ASEAN countries is small compared to overall national employment, contributing less than 1% of total employment in all the producing countries. Tobacco cultivation is highly labor-intensive and employs entire households (including unpaid women and children) in many stages of planting, harvesting, curing and marketing. Most tobacco farmers are smallholders, cultivating only part of a hectare, and do not turn a profit due to major input costs (rental fees to landowners, costs of seedlings, feritlizers, insecticides, and wood fuel for curing) and low leaf prices as determined by tobacco companies. Other challenges in the cultivation of tobacco leaf include Green Tobacco Sickness and other health hazards for farmers, environmental degradation, unpaid labor, and child labor.
Article 17 of the WHO FCTC requires Parties to promote economically viable alternative livelihoods for tobacco farmers and workers. In ASEAN, the Malaysian government has actively implemented crop substitution since 2004, with kenaf being promoted as an alternative crop for tobacco. A total of 1,364 hectares and 928 growers involved in kenaf cultivation in 2019. Under the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016 - 2020) the government has allocated MYR 5 million (USD 1.206 million) in strengthening the kenaf R&D and MYR 58,989,000 (USD 14.23 million) for kenaf new planting program. The total number of tobacco farmers in Malaysia declined significantly and there are small-scale farmers (140) for sliced tobacco for the local market only. Tobacco farmers in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Philippines are progressively switching to more profitable alternative crops and livelihoods.
In 2000, Kenaf (Hibiscus Cannabinus L) was recognized in Malaysia as a new short-term industrial crop supporting the diversification of the country's commodities sector. It has high potential for cultivation in a tropical climate and was promoted by the government as an alternative crop for tobacco in 2004. About MYR 5.8 million (USD 1.53 million) was allocated for kenaf research and development (R&D) to attract industrial players to invest in kenaf between 1996 and 2005. Under the 11th Malaysia Plan (2016 - 2020) implementation of programs and projects made by rolling plan, the government has allocated MYR 5 million (USD 1.206 million) in strengthening the kenaf R&D and MYR 58,989,000 (USD 14.23 million) for kenaf new planting program.
Smaller tobacco farmers are encouraged to switch to alternative livelihood through a crop diversification program, with started in 2005 and has intensified over the years which financial support from the government. Incentives in terms of inputs and mechanization will be given to kenaf's growers.
At present, the kenaf cultivation area involved 1,364 hectares with a total of 928 kenaf growers in 2020.
The National Kenaf and Tobacco Board (NKTB), formerly known as National Tobacco Board (NTB) plans to increase total kenaf hectarage to 5,000, production of 7,000 tonnes of fiber and 17,500 tonnes of core by 2020. It aims to export 50,000 tonnes or about RM15 billion worth of kenaf annually when ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) is fully implemented in 2015.