When you visit any supermarket in Malawi you will not fail to notice how well stocked it is. On a busy day, you will see long queues at the tills, with many patrons pushing trolleys containing all kinds of items. You would easily be tempted to think that you are in Johannesburg or in London
The difference between a supermarket in Malawi and the one in Johannesburg or London is that the latter will stock a good proportion of local products, but the former will almost exclusively stock imported products. In a Malawian supermarket you can count on your fingers the local products.
There are two major reasons for this state of affairs. The first is that Malawians have not yet mastered the art of making things. I have discussed the importance of culture in manufacturing in previous articles. Suffice to say we have not yet developed the culture conducive to manufacturing. Many Malawian’s idea of a good job is one that lets you sit in an office. Blue collar or pink collar work is regarded as less than ideal. People fail to appreciate that production is the goose that laid the golden egg.
This lack of interest in production, coupled with other complexities that go along with local production, make Malawi a production unfriendly country. True, attempts at large scale production have been made—we once had the British/American Tobacco (BAT) factory manufacturing a whole range of cigarettes (Life, Tom-Tom, Ascot and State Express to name but a few) opposite the Polytechnic in Blantyre.
Then we had Lever Brothers, which later rebranded to Unilever. In its heyday, Lever Brothers was manufacturing Lifebouy, Sunlight, Rexona, Surf, Covo, Kazinga and other brands. All of these were produced locally. We also had PEW fashioning bus and truck bodies in Blantyre. BAT closed their production plant long time ago and Unilever has recently made a similar decision, opting to import all their products.
I am not so naïve as to fail to appreciate that these decisions have been made because of unfavourbale manufacturing conditions locally. All am doing is pointing out that Malawi is a production unfriendly country, and very few people seem to take it to heart. It is simply not in our culture to take pride in production. We do not, for example, encourage our children to develop the habit of making things. When I was a boy, we used to make toy cars from wire. This was the generation that manufactured Covo and Tom-Tom and trailer bodies. We have lost the magic along the way. Today’s generation is totally different. They would rather spend their time on social networks than be bothered to make things.
The other reason is that Malawians have a huge appetite for imported goods. Buying imported items is a source of great pride to many Malawians. They brag about chairs or doors from China, shoes from America and so on. Two decades ago somebody bought a shirt in America and began to brag to his friend about it. When the friend took a close look at the shirt, he noticed that it had a “Robin Bridge” label. These shirts were being produced in Limbe under what was known as the “Export Processing Zones”, then exported to America.
The tragedy is that we do not create enough foreign exchange because we do not engage in large scale production for export. Then whatever little foreign exchange we get, we deplete it by satisfying our insatiable hunger for imports. Meanwhile, we continue to demand that the Reserve Bank of Malawi should regulate or even fix the exchange rate for our Malawi Kwacha. Are we serious?
Let us search within our attitudes and identify which ones we need to modify to help in creating a predominantly exporting rather than consuming nation of Malawi.