Dr Naomi Ngwira, who turned 50 this month, has a remarkable story to tell. Not only is she the first woman to become president of the Economic Association of Malawi (Ecama), but she is also an economist who believes in contributing constructively to her countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s economic management processes. In this interview with Paida Mpaso, she talks of the challenges she encountered while in school, the strategy behind her success and possible solutions to the economic challenges the country is facing.
Tell us about yourselfÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
I have two children, a young man and woman, I hold a PhD in economics. I have held several positions in the University of Malawi, civil society organisations and government. I am currently a consultant, working mostly for governments in the region and international agencies. I have just been elected president of Ecama.
What do you plan on bringing into Ecama?
Like I said in my acceptance speech, I plan on drawing from the membership our positive contribution to the countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s economic policy management so that the Malawi economy becomes more vibrant.
Together with my executive team and with the wider membership, we will do research on different matters affecting the economy with the intention of providing constructive advise as opposed to just criticising. Through this, we hope to strengthen the policy dialogue so that the countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s economy goes in the right direction. In addition, I intend on building from what the previous committee did because I think they did a good job.
DonÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t you think you have taken a very challenging position?
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to be a challenge and that is why my team and I will try as much as possible to be relevant to the current situation.
How do you feel now that you are now heading Ecama, with so many responsibilities already?
I feel greatly honoured that I was chosen to be in this position; I am quite ready to work with everybody.
Why do you think the membership saw you fit for the position?
Basically, I think people look for an economist who has experience with the economy and being someone who has worked in various positions, I think the experience and knowledge was enough for the Ecama membership to elect me as their president.
How were you chosen?
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a process where people are nominated and those who get the most votes are duly elected.
There are so many people who feel MalawiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s economy is deteriorating, what is your opinion? Where did we go wrong?
The major problem is reliance on tobacco especially now that the sales have been terrible, but government has pledged to solve this problem.
As for the forex shortages, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to be tough as government has to quickly get money from somewhere. Since much forex also comes from aid and we know some donors are withdrawing aid, it will be very challenging. The situation with donors has to be normalised. But our economic problems are eminently solvable; it only takes a determined and sustained leadership.
Do we have some leeway at the moment?
As a country, we can invest in tourism while protecting flora and fauna. In mining, government should support an accelerated, target-driven programme to explore for minerals and complete Bankable Feasibility Studies. In the energy sector, we can start harnessing water, investing in generation capacity and interconnection with the region so that we can export electricity and use it for our own expanding demand. There is need for increased agriculture diversification, and increased productivity through genuine commercial farming and re-oriented marketing. These priorities should be reflected and prioritised in the budget.
What does Ecama do?
Ecama was launched on 27th of February 1999. It is a forum of economists in Malawi and other interested parties who meet to discuss economic issues, provide policy analysis and advise decision makers. Our mission is to act as the voice of the economics profession through membership-focused services that benefit the profession, its practitioners, and national stakeholders. I am the first female Ecama president since inception. However, I was vice -president in 2000-2001.
As president, how do you want to be remembered?
I want Ecama to reach a point where is can help to bring concrete changes to this economy. I want to be remembered for giving advice and being positive and pragmatic, able to offer relevant solutions for lifting the economy.
As a woman who has achieved this much and worked in different top organisations, how do you feel considering not many women take such routes?
Not many women go to college, but I think we are getting there and many are even studying economics. The structure of learning in the university needs to be changed. The demand for studies is there. Private colleges are offering courses in the evenings or weekends and most of those enrolling are women in mid career, because the courses are structured to fit in with their gender roles. We need colleges like Chancellor or the Poly to come out more to where people are like in Lilongwe. Not all women have the possibility of leaving children with someone to study abroad.
But finally to succeed, women must be determined and work hard.
After reaching this position, what do want your children to learn from you?
Respect for people and determination to achieve oneÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lifes goals are important things. Besides, seek things that are of God. Attaining a PhD is not for everybody, and for some, it could be a waste of time. The key issue here is to get an education which will help one get decent living. But it is important that my children become good-mannered and have moral integrity.
Where did you do your education?
I basically grew up in Lilongwe, Ntcheu and Mzuzu as my father was a district commissioner and my mother was a teacher.Ã‚Â As civil servants, my parents moved at least once in three years. I did my secondary school at Livingstonia. In 1978, I was selected to go to Chancellor College where I studied economics. When I finished, I was recruited as a staff associate at the Centre for Social Research.
After working for a year, I went to the UK to do a masterÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s degree in economics and came back. I worked at the same place for five years and went to Michigan to do doctoral studies. I have taught at Bunda College of Agriculture and Chancellor College. From Chancellor College, I took leave and became the director of Institute for Policy Research and Dialogue and after two years, I worked in the Ministry of Finance as the adviser on debt and aid, until 2009. I have been an independent consultant since then.
How has your growing up shaped the person you are now today?
I remember being close to a devoted mother, who was also a teacher. My mother was the kind of person who looked after her children and gave them a standard to live up to. She checked our homework regularly and encouraged us to work hard. My father was very strict on schooling. As children, we tried our best to please our parents.
In secondary school and the university, I was surrounded by very inspiring friends. I am not exaggerating that most of them became doctors of medicine or philosophy. So, I think that this kind of growing up helped me become what I am today.
Some challenges that you encountered when growing up?
My parents were both working, so we were raised in a normal way, the challenges that I encountered mainly had to do with school. But I have had very good parents.
What was your motto?
My mother emphasised on diligence and patience, so I worked towards those. I like to work and deliver.
As a woman pursuing economic studies, what challenges have you encountered?
ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the same challenges, people not believing that you can do the job right.Ã‚Â I have grown up to be a tough woman and I have learnt to believe in hard work. I just make sure that I do my work right so that when they see the result, they should know the woman behind it. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s what I have done.
What do you like doing when you are not busy?
I like to do gardening. I started serious landscaping eight years ago, but it is done within the constraints of my consulting assignments.
Any career advancement taking place?
Advance myself to what now? I believe I have reached my end of it all and that is why I just sit and drink tea when I am not consulting. (laughs)
What kind of clothes do you like wearing?
I am 50 years old, so mostly I dress to look my age. When it comes to food, I like to try out Mediterranean and Italian dishes.
Any last comment?
A lot of good things about the economy have happened under President Bingu wa Mutharika and I think people forget fast. But as a country, we are in serious problems indeed. Yet, our problems can be solved if the leadership puts its mind to it.Ã‚Â Or else we will be shipwrecked.
Another issue is that people need communication on what is happening so that they too can be well-informed. Government needs to create credible spaces for dialogue, so it can understand peopleÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s needs and views.