In the world of advocacy they have rare celebrations. Getting the attention of key influencers is always a major milestone. It is even an extra mile if there is even a national strategy designed by government to champion for a particular cause. Advocates of buy local may simply have achieved. They had the whole head of State launching the Buy Malawian Strategy. Put it simply, he is on the front promoting brand Malawi. You got to give thumbs up to the trade minister as the line policy advocate. But what next?
In the 1980s, we had a massive Best Buy Malawian campaign. The radio was awash with jingles promoting the local brand. Most Malawian products were labelled with a beautiful best buy Malawian brand. How that campaign died, I do not recall, but it was a worthwhile effort. I think the current strategy builds on that one or learnt some lessons from it.
There are some benefits of buying local. For example, local products are made with Malawian labour. So, it could be an opportunity to create jobs for the youth that are bearing the blunt of unemployment. By importing products Malawi is simultaneously importing unemployment.
Simply, by importing products that can be produced here, we are creating jobs in other countries. Just think of how many jobs Malawi has created after the start of the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (Fisp) that has cost billions of kwacha. We could be producing our own or even increase local capacity and subsidise local production in its many variants. This is just one side of the coin, or if you like, a piece of a complex puzzle with conflicting interests.
Capital Hill is simply doing its job which in this case remains promoting brand Malawi. Or, at least taking a campaign to encourage Best Buy Malawi. From a regional or global view, we have committed to free trade and have been on a road reducing tariffs towards eventual free trade. So, if you are a producer, never expect high tariffs as a way to choke off competing imports. If it happens, trading partners simply retaliate and we are back to square one or at least create that environment for smuggling and tax avoidance, and worse still, corruption in the way taxes are levied or assessed.
While traders or producers have scored a major point, there is also a consumer; the person that goes to a shop or any outlet to buy some product. Like anywhere in the world, money in Malawi does not grow on trees. Buyers are rational beings not nationalists or some extreme patriots that will buy something simply because it is made in this country.
Basics of economics of demand come into play. For example, the quality of the product, prices of substitute products plus many factors, including the credibility of the country where the product is coming from. For example, the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) has for the past few months stopped some companies producing due to a violation of hygiene standards. I do not think I would buy such products simply because they are made in this country. Worse still, due to safety concerns, there is always a contagion effect to other producers whose hygiene standards are in line with national recommendations. It becomes, as the Malawian saying “ ikawola imodzi zonse zawola”.
For many years, the Malawian consumer has been short-changed. Some of our products have questionable quality. You will notice that popular Malawian food brands do not even have any labelling about nutritional content such calories, fats, vitamins, sugar content and many others. Some do not have expiry dates and some traders simply remove labels. Some consumers are conscious of such practices and try to opt for other alternatives.
Unfortunately, some of these alternatives are imports and no matter the nationalistic sentiment, consumers are rational beings. Nationalism does not put money in people’s pockets especially when it comes to budgeting and purchasing. Most Malawian products are quite expensive, but the quality is questionable.
While riding on the government Buy Malawi Strategy, the local producer must realise that it can only work if they are competitive. Competitive entails value for money in terms of product quality, packaging, labelling and lower prices compared to competing imports. It ought to be both ways, not just producers only. If it is one way with the intent to make huge profits for low quality products, it is an exercise in futility as we are now living in an open trade era.
Producers can simply help government, which is promoting this strategy by simply adding quality and value for money to their products. It is difficult to legislate against imports for retaliatory reasons as well as our international free trade obligations.
So let us see how it goes. Are you going local like me? n