The Malawi Paradox: Rich In Democracy, Peace, and Spirit, Yet Economically Poor

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The Malawi Paradox is a contribution from a great friend of the blog who wanted to share more context about Malawi’s Black Canvas: Seeking a Worthy President. It sheds more light on the issues being faced in the country, and how they could be resolved if resources were distributed to them.


Malawi! When you hear that name, what comes to mind? If you ask anyone familiar with the country, native or foreign, they would most likely mention Lake Malawi, also known as Lake Nyasa, a UNESCO World Heritage site and Africa’s third-largest lake noted for its pure waters, bursting fish species, and gorgeous scenery. 

Malawians are known for their pleasant and hospitable nature, earning the nickname “Warm Heart of Africa.” Talk about wildlife and national parks like Majete with its Big Five game, Mount Mulanje with its mythical Sapitwa legends, the Lake of Stars Festival, and the peaceful coexistence of diverse faiths, Christians, Muslims, and many more.

Maybe the court rulings of the 2019 Malawi elections made headlines and skyrocketed Malawi as a beacon for democracy. The truth is that Malawi is unique in its natural beauty, deep and rich cultural legacy, world-class hospitality, and abundance of natural resources! 

However, another reputation associated with Malawi has existed for decades: POVERTY! To say Malawi is still facing developmental issues is an understatement. Despite the constant inflow of donor assistance and democratic institutions that we have, our healthcare, education, agriculture, and other socioeconomic sectors continue to positively underperform year after year! 

Malawi poverty line

This is a massive quagmire, a predicament of epic proportions. So, the question is, what exactly is the problem with Malawi? Why are we not developing at the pace of neighboring countries and other emerging economies? 

Malawi’s Endless Problems

Economists and Development scientists have given an array of reasons why Malawi has stagnated, at times regressed, in socio-economic development. Some of the reasons given are as follows:

  1. Malawi is landlocked, limiting its import and export capacities. 
  2. Macroeconomic insecurity, exacerbated primarily by budgetary deviations and governance deficiencies, has hampered growth and investment. 
  3. Overpopulation, largely due to our high fertility rate, strains limited land resources and service delivery, reducing productivity by hindering families from engaging in more productive activities.
  4. Slow urbanization, and restricted opportunities for individuals living in cities. 
  5. Social inequalities among women’s engagement in agricultural production and non-farm sector enterprises, where they have smaller land lots, use fewer inputs, and benefit from less extension and investment, resulting in much lower productivity. 
  6. Rising climate threats like cyclones, floods, and droughts, more common in recent decades, have led to infrastructure damage, loss of life, and reduced population production 
  7. Overreliance on subsistence and rain-fed agriculture, compounded by limited non-farming economic options. 
  8. Overregulation by the government and political interference makes it difficult for non-state entities to initiate business or create jobs. 
  9. Limited meaningful economic investment that trickles down to the populace. 
  10. The population has a high disease burden. 
  11. The limited capacity of the Government to enforce its laws and policies. 
  12. Many more reasons that may require an entire series of books to properly articulate. 

Recommended Solutions to Curb the Issues Faced

Developmental scientists, economists, and other specialists have argued that Malawi needs to borrow a leaf from the lessons of the Four Asian Tigers (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan) in its developmental approach. It includes the following:

  • Export-Oriented Industrialization (EOI): an export-led growth strategy that would focus on developing and exporting manufactured goods. 
  • Education and Workforce Development: investing heavily in education and workforce development. 
  • Infrastructure Development: investing in constructing robust infrastructure, including transportation, communication, and energy networks. 
  • Government-Led Development: instituting strong targeted and government interventions and industrial policies played a crucial role. 
  • Open Market Policies: Embracing open market policies and promotion of free trade through strategic partnerships.
  • Technology and Innovation: developing and adopting new technologies to enhance productivity and competitiveness in the global market.
  • Political Stability and Social Order: maintaining political stability and social order is key to providing a conducive environment for economic growth and investor confidence. 
  • Land Reform: implementing land reforms to address inequality in access to land and improve agricultural productivity. 
  • Sound Financial and Monetary Policies: maintaining stable economic conditions through prudent fiscal management, stable currency exchange rates, and effective central banking.
  • Effective Adaptability and Resilience: the country needs to be able to effectively adapt to changing global economic conditions and build resilience among the general population from various shocks. 

These are all valid and indisputable facts. They make sense. They are evidence-based. They have been tried before and continue to be tried and tested. They have been covered in reports, books, articles, papers, and other strategic documentation. They are well-known by experts, technocrats, political leaders, practitioners, and even laypersons like me. 

Recommendations, policies, laws, and programs continue to be formed and implemented to address the issues. Public expenditure programs are always mushrooming on an annual basis to ensure Malawi moves forward. Yet here we are, still stagnating and regressing. 

The Glory Past and The Heartbreaking Present of Malawi

Slide to see the roads in 1980s vs the current state of roads in Malawi

We sing songs of what we used to have a couple of decades ago. The abundance of food that we used to have. Factories and industries we were proud of. Roads that were tarmac but are dusty now. Recreational parks are now spaces for criminal activities. So many aspects of life we used to access and enjoy but unfortunately are long gone. 

It is easy to blame and point fingers at politicians for this paradox. After all, we selected them to guide us towards the promised land. They must take us there. Previous administrations have performed variedly on the developmental front, but the common consensus is that we haven’t moved forward that much. 

The now inexistent Air Malawi

However, I beg to differ silently and slightly. While we have policies, strategies, programs, and approaches, there are enablers at the personal level that we, as a nation, need to address for effective economic strategies. 

In simple terms, an enabler makes an idea or a notion possible. Without enablers, actions are limited in their implementation. That is the reason why Malawi 2063 has enablers. Implementation of the programs is effective when there are critical enablers in place and this is where I would like to focus on. 

I always ask myself, “How come foreigners come here and prosper?” The same land, same economic conditions, same resources. How can refugees accumulate wealth and resources when the natives have failed for decades? What is it that they do differently? 

It is a  difficult question to answer. Others may have different answers from mine, but I try to provide solutions through some key enablers, which are at an interpersonal level, and these include: Norms and Mindsets, Public Order, Timeliness and Time Management, National Identity and Heritage, Networking and Long Term Visioning. 

Norms and Mindsets: Our way of thinking and living, upbringing, and values as a nation are defined by our cultures, norms, mindsets, and attitudes. Much as they are invisible, norms and mindsets have a significant impact on the practices and policies of a society. We are a hardworking people, barely producing enough yet extravagant in consumption. We work hard but are not smart. 

Go around rural villages in Malawi, everyone is busy and frantic during the rainy growing season yet after harvest, most people are just idling and indulging in communal beer parties throughout the follow-on season. Something is missing in our attitudes and mindset where we leave our welfare in the hands of others. Our focus is mostly on the current and tomorrow forgetting that there is a day after tomorrow. Growth is usually discarded as a core denominator in our developmental approaches. 

Most of us are all about immediate results and that has hampered our ability to sustain the various gains we achieve. We need to change our norms and mindsets though this process is not straightforward. We need a combination of community actions, advocacy, and legislative reform supported by minute yet steady improvements in practice. This is closely related to my next enabler, long-term visioning.  

Long-Term Visioning: As explained earlier, most of us plan in the immediate term. If I were to ask you where you see yourself in 10 years, most of us have no clear idea of where we see ourselves in a decade. Our focus is usually on an annual basis at most. What this means is that we fail to align our actions, decisions, and life choices to a longer-term dream or desired future state. We are unable to measure our progress and performance along the way. We just float away driven by the waves of life. 

I have personal examples of individuals who are driven by a future they envisioned and they are prospering. However, society tends to shun and mock them for these strides as a people let us adopt long-term visioning as soon as our child is born. We should carefully plan, research, communicate, and evaluate our dreams and goals, making corrective decisions along the way. 

Public Order: We are an unruly society. Go outside and assess the damage that we cause to our environment. Damage to infrastructure, bad hygiene practices, and destructive practices in our conduct are our specialty. We cut down signposts to make hoes for personal benefits. I remember a story of some people dismantling bus stands within Blantyre for reasons unknown. It’s a common sight to see men urinating on trees. We discard trash anyhow. 

Most of us do not take care of properties and tools given to us in our offices and communities. Public WiFi is used to watch pornographic content. Vandalism of public infrastructure is rampant. I once went to Capital Hill in Lilongwe, the heart of government business, and was shocked to see that most of the solar street lights were vandalized as well as the metallic bars on the fences. 

I laughed when I saw that poles for solar street lights in Zomba were covered in barbed wire to prevent them from being vandalized. For whatever reason, we tend to abuse spaces and resources for unimportant stuff. This is worsened by minimal punitive measures against culprits. No way we can move forward with this mentality. Public order in disarray. A very unruly people.

Timeliness and Time Management: “Malawian time” is a disease we proudly marinate and nurture. We do not keep time. We do not manage our time. It always frustrates me when people are late for scheduled engagements. It is disheartening that we do not utilize time effectively. We act as if we have all the time in the world. 

National Identity and Heritage: How can one be identified as a Malawian? Our dressing? Our songs? Language? Nsima? Chiwaya maybe? When it comes to music, do we have a Malawian sound? Who is a Malawian? Can we achieve a national identity despite our different tribal backgrounds? 

National identity is crucial in national development as it facilitates belongingness, and defining personalities, norms, and cultures while providing a framework where individuals strive to define their own space within a bigger picture. A nation should move as one under a commonly shared vision if it is to develop. 

It cannot happen when people feel like they do not belong. It is crucial to define who we are as a nation and understand our past. At the core of our existence, we need citizens to be aware of their heritage. 

Maya Angelou once stated, “I have great respect for the past. If you do not know where you have come from, you do not know where you are going.” This ties up nicely with the other enablers mentioned previously. We are a people of the past and the present. We ought to know and respect our past, whilst ensuring that we do our best now before we embark on going forward to the next place.

Trustworthy Networking:  It has been said, rightly or so, that Malawians do not value networking and collaboration. We are a very centric society. Usually, it is about me and my family. We differ from other societies where they undertake assignments collectively. A good example is how Asians conduct their business in Malawi. They have several businesses that network and form a hub that provides a wide range of services in a harmonized manner. All are under coordination. 

David Kalirani, when he used to be known as Stix, once said, “Every moment is a blessing; cherish it!” Every second counts. Our appetite for time wastage negatively impacts our performance and productivity, facilitates rampant work-life imbalances, and ensures that we remain unfocused, get easily distracted, and procrastinate frequently. It is high time we do away with Malawian time. It is shameful. 

One family that does courier business, links with another that has hotel chains and another with food chain stores and shops, etc. I was surprised when I heard of one Asian business guru, who has a food chain store, who had gone to Karonga to buy thousands of kilograms of “Bonya” fish earmarked for the January to February period and stored in his friend’s warehouse in Lilongwe. They used the courier services of their colleagues and so on. 

This is a rare occurrence among Malawians. Our enterprises are simplistic and siloes. That limits growth and our ability to penetrate international markets.  Whenever we collaborate, it is usually at a lower scale. Our own “bank nkhondes” will be stuck in their current state. Imagine if farmers of legumes collaborated well, it would be easier to export the products outside Malawi. We should do better. Walking together will take us far. However, this must be done in a professional and trustworthy manner. 

All in all, as a people, if we do not rectify these challenges and attributes, we will never go far as a nation. The leaders we choose are a direct reflection of us. Unless we change who we are, and how we think and conduct ourselves, we will never develop as compared to other nations that have improved tremendously within a short period. Let me know what you think in the comment section. Thank you, and may God/Allah/the universe strengthen our resolve to do better and be better for the sake of future generations. It starts with you and me.

6 thoughts on “The Malawi Paradox: Rich In Democracy, Peace, and Spirit, Yet Economically Poor

  1. I thought I could only read about motherhood, parenting and childbirth from you but I love that you’re talking about other important economical issues.

  2. When we talk of Malawians we need to mention natives and non natives. Native black malawians are literally not in control of the economy.
    1. In the rural areas we need chiefs and traditional authorities who are better educated and can influence the people to form cooperatives and pool resources to have boreholes for all year round agriculture.
    2. Non natives Malawians should not be allowed to own land. Only black malawians can own land.
    3. Communities should safe guard public infrastructure within there areas light street lights and bus stops sometimes we know the criminals and we protect them.
    4. Local authorities should construct more public toilets especially in busy areas like kameza there no public toilets.

  3. I like the fact you have suggested export-oriented industrialization. Indeed it’s high time we came up with industrialization and import substitution policies. If we are to revamp the economy then there is a need to diversify our exports and reduce the over-reliance on the export of primary goods whose prices tend to be continuously slumping on the global market

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