The recent report by the National Statistical Office on the state of poverty in Malawi makes bad reading, to say the least. What this column will discuss this week is the reversal of fortunes of some districts, as those that used to be the most “well to do”, in relative terms, are now the poorest.
Mchinji and Kasungu potentially have all the ingredients of what a rich district in Malawian terms should have by way of fertile soils and good weather and yet, ironically, they turned out to be the poorest and next poorest districts, respectively. The race is indeed not necessarily to the swift.
Once upon a time farmers from Mchinji, Kasungu, Dowa, Ntchisi and Lilongwe were the envy of even salaried town dwellers. They were no strangers to the Road Traffic Department as they were in the habit of buying vehicles after selling their tobacco.
The urban centres used to teem with “loaded” farmers, looking for all manner of goods. Long queues would form in the banks, courtesy of these farmers. During the tobacco selling season, pickpockets in town were ready to pounce on the unsuspecting farmers, sometimes robbing them of all their earnings. They once grabbed one farmer in a Lilongwe bank and dragged him out the banking hall, exclaiming “Musasanzire muno, musasanzire muno! (Please, do not vomit in the hall?)” The onlookers thought the victim had taken ill and that those who grabbed him were actually assisting him. When they got outside the bank, the thugs robbed the poor farmer and disappeared.
Those species of farmers appear to have become extinct in Malawi. They are not in Mchinji or Kasungu any more, as can be deduced from this year’s report on the poverty status. Something terribly went wrong!
There was a time that Admarc used to be an economic giant and would serve the ordinary farmers throughout the length and breadth of Malawi. People did not have to walk a long distance to find an Admarc outlet, as makeshift markets were in nearly every village. I still remember that as I grew up at Nkhoma Mission, we would take our produce to Mkhola Village, some three or four kilometres away, where we would sell groundnuts, beans or maize.
In those days farmers had some disposable income after selling their produce to Admarc. Before the Asian traders were forcefully relocated to the cities, they used to operate from rural trading centres, and local farmers were their clientele. They would buy grocery items (like sugar, soap, cooking oil), clothing and in some cases radios and bicycles. The more affluent ones (and these were mostly tobacco farmers) would buy vehicles.
Banking on this disposable income from farmers, the Central African Transport Company (Catco) embarked on a project to manufacture vehicles in Blantyre branded ‘Zonse’, meaning “all” as it was envisaged that they would help the farmers to transport farm inputs during the cropping season as well as agricultural produce after harvest.
Catco had the capacity to produce three trucks per week, according to its general manager, Mr. Cottingham, who was quoted as saying so in a 1975 edition of The Daily Times. Indeed, Catco did roll out some vehicles but today we have neither Zonse trucks nor the company that produced them.
Since 1994, Admarc has been both ignored and abused, to the extent that it ceased to be the farmers’ reliable companion. As Admarc exited, vendors entered the scene. It is at the hands of vendors that farmers were reduced to economic nonentities. Some five years ago, I visited a remote village in Mchinji, some distance from Kapiri Trading Centre. A vendor had displayed the prices that he was buying produce on a board. Soya was at K50 per kilogramme but the price of maize was not shown. I think it was so low that it was an embarrassment even to the vendor to show it.
People may have been surprised that an agriculturally rich district, which Mchinji is, would turn out to be the poorest in Malawi. I am not surprised, not in the least, that things are what they are. The Mchinji farmer, like his counterpart from Kasungu or Dowa, has had nowhere to sell his produce and has been letting it go to vendors at a pittance.
Let me reiterate what I said in past articles, namely that government needs to fix Admarc as a matter of urgency to reverse the trend of things. Searching within available options, there is not much else we can do.