It has been great to be back in Malawi. Over the past few weeks, I have travelled across the country in gorgeous weather and interacted with a diverse group of people – politicians, civil servants, engineers, businessmen, media persons, fellow academics, students and regular Malawian citizens. Malawi is breathtakingly beautiful and many of my conversations revolved around what it would take to attract more investors to the country. Three broad sets of issues emerged during these interactions.
1) Better governance and bolder decisions: The current political climate has created considerable uncertainty. Most investors look for predictability of decision-making and a stable domestic political situation reassures them that their investment decisions will not be jeopardized. The looming elections and the pending case in the Supreme Court has created a sense of unease and investors appear to be adopting a watch and wait strategy. While they are aware of the current government’s priorities, they are also unsure of what a new government will bring to the table and whether and to what extent any such policy will be radically different from current ones.
2) Electrifying Malawi: Load shedding and frequent power outages are the rule rather than the exception. Without their own generators, most major hotels in the country would run out of business. Last weekend, the generator at Ryalls hotel in Blantyre was running from early morning to late afternoon. But it is not just the hospitality business or established entrepreneurs that are worried. Several potential investors expressed their reluctance to start a new business for fear of the enormous costs of ensuring uninterrupted power to their factories. The current amount of electricity generated from hydroelectric powerplants on the Shire is not enough to satisfy consumer and business demands. I am told the government is considering coal as a viable option. However, although coal-fired plants are increasingly popular in many developing countries because they are cheaper and faster to build, they also result in considerable pollution.
3) More effective branding of Malawi: Most Malawians highlight their long history of peaceful co-existence. Indeed, despite recent protests and mass demonstrations, Malawi has fared a lot better than most other African countries, where the political culture can be far more toxic and violent. For decades, Malawi has branded itself as the “Warm heart of Africa”, but it has been unclear what that exactly means. Perhaps it is time to operationalise the concept further, highlighting the investment benefits of being friendly and peace-loving and how the country differs from others on the continent. Rather than continuing with the narrative of being poor, helpless and in need of help from others, the time may be right for an image makeover, where the positives are highlighted with greater enthusiasm.