How did Malawi turn from a nation that could manufacture its own clothing to one that is fully dependent on foreign manufacturers? Our news analyst EPHRAIM NYONDO begins to explore.
If you are male, of the shirts in your wardrobe, how many carry the label ‘Made in Malawi?’ The same can be asked to females: of the dresses or blouses you have, how many have the ‘Made in Malawi’ label?
Most Malawians will agree that they have very few, if any, clothes that are made locally. The situation extends to beddings, curtains, tablecloths and many other materials used in the household.
If the item is not from East Asia—China, Singapore or Malaysia—then it is made in the US, Europe or even South Africa.
Clearly, when it comes to clothing, Malawians today are dressed by foreigners.
But things were not like this in the 1980s, specifically in 1985 when Jamison Phiri, 72, started tailoring outside a bottle store in Blantyre City.
“I learnt tailoring from my father. I bought my tailoring machine and moved into the city from my home village in Balaka. Tailoring was big business.
“You had a number of orders; men’s and women’s suits, shirts, skirts, trousers, school uniforms, church clothing and many other things,” says Phiri.
He says he would buy cloth from David Whitehead and Sons Limited, design clothes, tailor them and put them on display.
“It did not take long for them to be bought,” he says.
Phiri adds that the golden years of tailoring even spilled into the early to mid 1990s.
“I would receive many orders, especially from women. With weddings and engagement ceremonies, you had a lot of people seeking our services. It was big business,” he says.
And the business created great fortunes for his family. Married with four children—all of them educated to college level—Phiri, who has never been employed, says he built four houses in Ndirande, Blantyre, from tailoring. That was by 1999.
The fortunes Phiri made out of tailoring before 1999, symbolise Malawi’s golden years of textile and clothing industry.
Veteran politician Sam Mpasu—a Chancellor College graduate of economics who served as industrial licensing officer in the Ministry of Commerce, Trade and Tourism between 1970 and 1973, and served as Minister of Trade and Commerce from 2002 to 2003—argues that in terms of textile and cloth production, Malawi has not been that vibrant since the 1950s.
“One striking characteristic of this industry is that it is not integrated. The bulk of the cotton that is produced is exported in semi-processed form and the garments manufacturers use imported raw materials,” he says.
However, Mpasu underlines that from the 1970’s to the late 1990s—especially 1995; Malawi fared relatively well compared to neighbouring countries in its textile and clothing industries.
“The underlying factor was that a number of Malawians, then, were dressing in clothes that were made within the country. We had a number of garment industries that were making nice clothes. Domestically, they were well supported,” says Mpasu, who adds that it was rare in his college days to see a student donning an imported suit.
The relatively good things stemming from Malawi’s textile and clothing industry as portrayed by Banda and Mpasu did not come by default. They were a product of the then government’s industrial policy.
After attaining independence, like many other African countries, Malawi—according to a 2006 article titled The African Textile and Clothing Industry: From Import Substitution to Export Orientation by researcher Herbert Jauch—pursued import substitution industrial policy as a way of protecting its infant manufacturing sector.
Jauch argues that import substitution (IS) is based on the principle that the State plays a key developmental role and an active State policy is the main tool to transform an agrarian economy into an industrial society.
“IS is a strategy to target the domestic market. Companies set up through national (private or public) or foreign investments were provided with a local market and protected from outside competition through customs duties, through quantity restrictions on imports or by out-rightly banning them,” he writes.
This saw the establishment of the David Whitehead and Sons—the country’s main textile and clothing industry which, according to James Chimbiya, an employee who joined it in 1986, employed thousands.
The heart of its relative success, continues Jauch, was that the first two of the so-called development decades (1960s and 1970s) of the import substitution were at a time when the World Trade Organisation (WTO) was not yet in existence, when no Most Favoured Nation (MFN) clause made discrimination policies difficult and when no binding of tariffs or prohibition on quantity restrictions narrowed the policy space of national governments.
“This was the time, when import substitution was even the favoured development approach by the World Bank, when foreign debt was not yet an issue and the IMF had no say in the macro-economic policies of African states,” he writes.
However, according to Mpasu, the IS began to phase out by the 80s due to two price shocks in the early 1970s which saw the price of a barrel of crude oil first jumped from $2 (1972) to $12 (1974) and later on from $17 (1978) to $40 (1980/81).
“Government was forced to finance their fuel imports with foreign loans, for political reasons mostly not daring to increase the price of local fuel accordingly,” he says.
As a result, the World Bank called on government to obtain more foreign loans, without giving much consideration to their future capacity to service debts.
But when the foreign debts exploded in the 1980s, argues Mpasu, import substitution came to a virtual standstill and was rolled back by the infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).
“The developmental role of the state, as a result, was curtailed under the new World Bank/IMF dogma of ‘leaving development to the market forces.”
“Government subsidies to the manufacturing sector were cut, restrictions on foreign trade removed and currencies depreciated. Domestic manufacturers suddenly had to openly compete with importers and, in most cases, lost large parts of domestic markets,” he says.
DWS, as a result, wobbled and so did other players in the garment industry.
“Today, I spend days without having an order. We survive on school uniforms, sewing torn clothes and altering big ones. The glorious days are over. You just can’t make enough money from tailoring as we did in the past,” says Phiri.
Tomorrow: How is the textile industry doing? The case of Mapeto DWS.