Himon Amanu, 41, has no kind words for fires that have devastated markets in Malawi in recent years. For example, the fire that razed down Blantyre Flea Market in 2011 is something he will never forget.
He was one of the affected vendors. He lost all his wares, which included clothes and cell phones worth K2 million.
“Whenever I think about fire, it pains me as I remember the loss of my business at Blantyre Market. I had wares of high standard which I used to order from South Africa and Tanzania, but I lost everything,” says Amanu, a resident of Goliyo in Ndirande, Blantyre.
The father of four says the fire left him and his wife desperate as they had no money to feed their children.
“I sold our vehicle and used the cash to start the business afresh. I do not know what I would have done to raise more money for capital if I had no vehicle,” says Amanu.
In his capacity as president of Blantyre Flea Market Vendors, he says although he is back in business he still fears experiencing a similar tragedy in future considering lack of safety measures at the market. .
Amanu says: “There are a lot of things that should be done for these markets to be safe. For example, there is need for small fire extinguishers as is the case with other public places such as hospitals, offices and schools.
“There is need for civic education so that vendors are aware of things that can cause fire. Unfortunately, I have never seen any poster in a market that warns people about what to do in the event of a fire.”
Lack of such civic education is what motivated the establishment of a non-governmental organisation called Fire Risk Management Centre (FRMC) in 2012.
FRMC training and marketing coordinator, Dryhcon Namtupa, agrees with Amanu, saying lack of civic education is to blame for some preventable market fires.
“The solution to market fires is not just compensating the victims. The most important thing is civic education; vendors need to know what they should do to avoid more fires in future,” says Namtupa.
According to a Ministerial Committee on Fires that destroyed Mzuzu Central and Tsoka Flea markets in July this year, since 2004 nine markets have burnt down, including Tsoka Flea Market (twice), Mzuzu Central Market (twice), Mzuzu Matabwa Market, Mzuzu Taifa Market, Mangochi Market, Balaka Market and Blantyre Flea Market.
Namtupa says his organisation is facilitating meetings between councils and vendors to brainstorm solutions to market fires.
“We have started with vendors from Blantyre and Limbe markets. We facilitated a first meeting which was held at Kanjedza Lodge in Limbe.
“Vendors from these markets discussed with Blantyre City Council (BCC) the issue of market fires. During the meeting, the vendors suggested various solutions and preparatory measures to prevent or deal with the fire. Many of the vendors said they do not have much information about causes of fires and how they can prevent it,” Namtupa explains.
BCC deputy mayor, Wild Ndipo, says the council wants to see an improvement in as far as market fires are concerned in Blantyre. He says in the absence of councillors it was difficult for councils to take actions on certain things.
“Now that councillors are in office, there will be an improvement in the operations of councils. One of the issues to look into and solve is market fires. In the case of BCC, we will be meeting vendors regularly so that we should find common solutions on this problem. We will ensure vendors have enough information,” says Ndipo.
A significant number of markets across the country are constructed using substandard materials such as timber and carton stalls which easily catch fire.
Lilongwe Vendors Association chairperson George Banda blames councils saying they let vendors construct shops using such substandard materials. He, therefore, calls upon councils to ensure that no vendor should use wooden planks to construct a shop in the market.
“Most of these market fires can be attributed to the use of wooden planks for shop construction. Another cause of market fires is overcrowding in our markets. Imagine a market which is supposed to accommodate 200 vendors accommodates up to 2 000 vendors,” observes Banda.
He says Tsoka Flea Market is being reconstructed using bricks to avoid similar accidents in future.
“I hope, with the use of bricks in constructing our new stalls, we will be safe from fires in future,” says Banda, who sells second-hand clothes.
During the Tsoka Flea Market fire accident, 1 011 vendors were affected and property lost was estimated at K961 937 425, according to Tarcisio Gowelo, chairperson of the Ministerial Committee on Fires that destroyed Tsoka Flea Market and Mzuzu Central Market.
Gowelo, who is also Local Government and Rural Development Minister, says 1 149 vendors at Mzuzu Central Market were affected as they lost property estimated at K305 168 000.
The minister agrees with Amanu that councils should have basic firefighting equipment.
“The committee recommended that councils should procure firefighting equipment to deal with market fires. This will help people extinguish fire before it destroys a large part of the market,” says Gowelo.