At the last count in 2008, Malawi had 13 million people, and a population growth of 2.8 percent, one of the world’s highest. Population numbers are often misunderstood. In fact, population growth rate in simple terms is total new births net of deaths.
We are adding more to our population than we bury in the grave. But this is no reason to celebrate because a majority of people we bury have not reached retirement age and hence we still loose economically active persons. Our life expectancy remains very low. 85 percent of our population lives in the rural areas, but a high rural-urban migration is apparent. The Northern Region population is growing fastest at 3.3 percent, the South least at 2.4 percent, and the Centre in a balancing act at 3.1 percent. Only 15 percent of Malawians live in the cities or urban areas, to be precise. Lilongwe Rural, Mangochi and Mzimba have the highest rural populations.
Malawi is currently in huge economic crisis. The prices of basic commodities are fast rising. Inflation has hit 31 percent in the urban areas. In the rural settings, it has so far reached 27 percent. Whatever programs that are being designed to solve the current puzzle, need pay close attention to the economic realities of rural Malawi. There is a tendency to focus on prescribing solutions that have an urban bias of the bureaucrat/politician comfort. There has been a reduction in global poverty simply because China, the worlds’ most populous country, has improved the welfare of the highest global number of poor people. In this country, any plan, no matter what names you give it, poverty reduction at national level will only be reduced if rural areas are the main focus of all poverty interventions. Not fertiliser subsidy to grow maize. The majority of poor Malawians live in the rural areas.
I will not bore you with population numbers, but I realise the incidence of poverty does some collaboration worth noting. 50.7 percent of Malawians live below the national poverty line. The incidence of poverty, as reports National Statistical Office (NSO), is 56.6 percent in rural Malawi.
Within urban areas, it is 17.3 percent. Put it simple, our efforts should be tilted towards getting the 56.6 percent out of poverty in rural Malawi to make a meaningful dent on poverty across the nation. We now can seriously consider the economic realities of rural Malawi, and how the urban bias agenda seems to guide poverty policy.
The average kid in rural Malawi goes to schools that have inadequate teachers. There are too many schools in rural Malawi that have only two teachers for eight classes. Naturally, such kids cannot compete fairly with their counterparts in urban areas. Urban schools are having more teachers than they need. As a result most of them get an average education not required for a modern day job. If you have had a dose of rural Malawi, you will possibly comprehend such realities. Early marriages are often a result when such kids resign to some fate with no prospect of any job unless they migrate to town and live in squalor. The cycle goes onto maternal deaths often a result of young girls being forced into marriage. With health facilities located in remote places, it takes over two hours for an ambulance to travel from Mzimba hospital to Mpherembe Health Centre to transport a young woman in labour to the poorly equipped district hospital for instance. It would be interesting to visit our jails and relate tales of offenders to lack of opportunities, often induced by lack of opportunity in rural Malawi. We now have too many prophets promising economic miracles. No disrespect to any faith, but such pointers cannot be ignored.
Such is one dimension in the social and economic realities side of life in rural Malawi. To some extent, it appears, we seem to condemn rural Malawi to subsistence farming. Popular fertiliser subsidy and Young kids dropping out of school to farm are not a way to deal with poverty. They need jobs and some environment has to be created to give hope to rural Malawi. Rural Malawi decides who gets elected as president due to its population and false promises given to them. Policy execution, either in the craft of bureaucrats or seasoning of political elites ignores the reality of poverty reduction. Success hinges very much on getting the majority of our rural people out of poverty, irrespective of their political leanings.
The main employer in rural Malawi remains government with jobs restricted to predominantly primary school teacher or some civil servant, often paid with a one month lag. If you look at the cities, there is a surge in squatters that are frustrated with low life in the rural side of this country. Getting jobs in the bush must underpin policy objectives of government. It is not just a question of giving extra allowances to rural civil servants. In the same line of thinking that we pressurise banks to open up in the rural areas, government must strive to create an environment for businesses to open up in rural areas and create jobs. Not just a “Farmers World or Kulima Gold” shops to sell subsidised fertiliser. It is costly to run a business in the bush. Spend a night or a have a meal at Mvuu camp/Nyika and appreciate the cost. That’s why businesses love to be in the city.
It remains important that public resources meant for rural development are properly utilised. Certain amenities lacking in rural Malawi make the cost of business high. It is pointless for farmers walking with cows from Nthalire to Mzuzu if there was electricity and a good road through Nyika national park to support an abattoir business right in the bush. We need to ask serious questions on the rural electrification and road levies that we pay on the pump. How many all season roads have been constructed? Similarly how many of rural areas have benefited from the rural electrification programme? Such interventions are very critical in attracting a sizeable number of investors that create jobs in rural Malawi. It’s tough there, and they need not lose their land to burials for deaths occurring in the city. It’s called double taxation. n