- Rural man expresses hopes, despair
Millions of Malawians at midnight crossed over into 2020 in darkness, symbolising the shortage of power to turn the economy into a technologically-driven affair generating about K750 000 ($1 000) for an average citizen’s pocket every year.
Such dark nights are an everyday story for Louis Richman, a farmer struggling with dwindling crop yield in a village near Linthipe One in Dedza District.
The Linthipe Valley is not like Gangala, home to generations of beggars roaming the streets of Blantyre while plunging their children into illiteracy and poverty as they do not go to school. Rather, it is the food basket for many, of the capital city, Lilongwe, and passers-by. including the one million residents
But the 42-year-old is one of poor Malawians still lighting their way to bed by burning logs, grass and crop residues.
During our visit, we found him chucking off ash and smouldering firewood from a fire that illumined his hut the previous night.
The 2018 Population and Housing Census shows that like Richman, four percent of the country’s population estimated at 17.6 million still use wood, straw and crop residues for lighting, with only 12 percent using national grid power and six percent turning to solar energy.
From his grass-thatched home, poor Richman and his three children can see the skyline of Linthipe One, an electrified rural trading centre, plunge into darkness, with light bulbs glowing like distant stars here and there.
Except his village hides in the dark, typical of remote settings where only four percent have access to electricity despite a touted rural electrification programme launched in 1980.
At the current pace, people like Richman have to wait for over a century for universal electrification government wants to achieve by 2030, the deadline for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to wipe out poverty by, among other things, ensuring that everyone uses reliable, clean, affordable would create a way out of poverty.
“But today, I’m still poor. I cannot afford to replace a simple torch which costs as low as K500,” Richman says, throwing away the ash from the night fire.
The self-styled farmer, one of the cadre President Peter Mutharika hailed as “founders of the Malawi nation”, hardly harvests enough maize to feed his family until the next harvest. He is one of the Malawians still wallowing in hunger and poverty despite the transformation Vision 2020 promised.
If the vision came to reality, he would have earned $1 000 (an equivalent of K750 000) last year, but he entered the New Year 2020 admiring his neighbours who own cattle as they sell milk at K200 a litre at Linthipe One Trading Centre, a third of the selling price members of Dzaonewekha Cooperative nearby get owing to access to electricity that facilitates cooling of the milk.
“Electricity is not only good for lighting. If you put it to productive use, it means more money. Some of us are getting poorer because we have no electricity to show us the way,” says Richman, who has inhaled hazardous fumes of burning wood, paraffin and candles.
Due to lack of affordable electricity supply, the rural population cooks using firewood and charcoal, consuming trees in neighbouring indigenous forests and hills.
Nowadays, women walk longer in search of firewood, as six pieces cost K200. This is common in the country with 97 percent of the population cooking using fuelwood, according to the Department of Energy Affairs.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that the country loses up to 29 tonnes of topsoil per hectare every year.
This mirrors a breakdown in environmental management in an economy where the livelihood of two in five people hinges on natural resources going to waste.
The degradation of farmlands does not just lead to low crop yields at a time of frequent floods, drought and other extreme weather events caused by climate change severely disrupting the agriculture-based economy. The mud swept by unfettered run-offs bury rivers in silt, including the Shire where turbines generating power for about 12 percent of the population are clogged by debris thus catalysing endless blackouts that spanned 36 hours in 2017.
Mutharika promised that his administration would end the blackouts by 2018, when he switched on diesel-powered generators—the ailing grid’s life-support machines—with a proclamation that Malawi was a desirable destination for business and foreign investment again.
To date, people in Malawi endure blackouts that span four-12 hours a day.
During the dark chapter, Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry chief executive officer Chancellor Kaferapanjira lamented that lengthy power disruptions had catalysed job losses and productivity as costs of running diesel-generators had soared.
Big dreams, small step
In their dreams, the framers of Vision 2020 envisaged improved electricity supply spurring economic growth.
The vision statement reads: “By the year 2020, Malawi, as a God-fearing nation, will be secure, democratically mature, environmentally sustainable, self-reliant with equal opportunities for and active participation by all, having social services, vibrant cultural and religious values and a technologically driven middle-income economy.”
During the review of the economic blueprint, Kaferapanjira said: “The pillars were too many and some of them read like outcomes. The framers didn’t identify sectors that can bring economic growth and sustainability. What will sustain the economy? How much was given to the enablers? Poverty alleviation has a limit.”
Equally worried is Professor Oliver Saasa of Zambia, the lead consultant the National Planning Commission (NPC) engaged to review the Vision 2020.
The review confirms what the open secret policymakers shelved and forsook the Vision 2020: An average Malawian’s earnings are “way, way below” the threshold envisioned 20 years ago.
The expert says the vision was too ambitious for the world’s third poorest country starved of both political zeal and resources to trigger the desired economic upturn.
Said Saasa: “Partially it was too ambitious, if you look at the targets of becoming a middle-income economy which is over $1 000. ”
He says it is vanity for everyone with just enough money to buy a bicycle to wish they owned a plane.
NPC director-general Thomas Chataghalala Munthali, the economist tasked to come up with the next long-term economic blueprint, says Vision 2020’s expiry date is December 31 2020.
However, he found it pathetic that despite the New Year festivities, over half of Malawians woke up poor and facing a future that is “bleak, very bleak” in the next 366 days and beyond.
Munthali hopes Vision 2063, with the cut-off point aligned to African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the centenary of self-rule, will put the private sector at the centre of wealth creation and redistribution when it takes shape next year.
He explains: “There were a number of factors that led the nation to underachieve… We could hardly tell whether they were making progress or not. In addition, there was an issue of the will to see the vision through to the end. As you know, the review is only happening now. This means all those years, nobody took interest to know what was working and why not.”
Munthali is not surprised that the national agenda fell flat and no one seemed to care, with politicians uttering promises and manifestos far removed from the citizens’ aspirations Vision 2020 embodies.
He promised to ramp up mass awareness when Vision 2063 is out and to take it to every candidates and political parties competing to get into power.
Munthali said: “We are going to tell the candidates: This is what the people want; it’s not anybody’s vision, but the people’s vision.”
But the Saasa report faults policymakers for muting the “people’s vision” in preference for global goals and short-term goals politicians promise on the podium to get votes every five years.
On the streets, Malawians said in random interviews in Blantyre that there isn’t much to show for Vision 2020 and political rush for quick gains. Some feel only corruption is flourishing in the country as ruling elites and their cronies get richer to the point that corrupt leaders are worshipped as streetwise instead of being prosecuted.
They find the Anti-Corruption Bureau toothless to crack down on rampant corrupt practices, with Transparency International ranking Malawi number 120 least corrupt nation out of 175 on its Corruption Perception Index.
Economist Naomi Ngwira, one of the makers of Vision 2020 and its successor taking shape, says it is possible to change the country if both the public and private sectors cut back on corruption and concentrate on sectors that can stimulate economic growth.
“We need to change our attitude and kick out corruption,” she said during the Vision 2020 post-mortem in Lilongwe. “It is a pity we seem to think because our families are well-off then we don’t want anyone to develop. This is why we are busy looting public funds to build mansions and buy big cars.”
On the knees
As the leakage continues much to the benefit of few, some Malawians who have been stuck in poverty too long are increasingly going on their knees in shrines of prophets and herbalists who promise them quick riches.
Since 2014, nearly 134 000 Malawians with albinism in the country have come under siege, with about 165 of them suffering horror attacks that culminated in the murder of 25.
The belief Mutharika renounced as stupid points to erosion of hard work and hope the vision sought to restore. It goes against the spirit it embodies when Muluzi launched it with pomp and promise to a nation that in 2014 was diagnosed to be poorer than it were at the fall of founding president Kamuzu Banda’s one-party rule two decades earlier.
During the launch Muluzi said: “I’m pleased that after using a participatory approach, Malawi has completed a study of its development prospects. Vision 2020 should not be merely a slogan. It should evoke our determination to create a better future for Malawi.”
But the belated review reminds the nation that national visions are only as good as the political and policy environment under which they are crafted and implemented.
“Successive governments in Malawi have demonstrated limited ability and willingness to transform the government system towards doing things differently,” it reads.
The New Year 2020 is here. Malawians have waited in vain for miracles from the lost decades, with unmistakable symbols of poverty flashing in both rural and urban setting.