Small business matters in Malawi - Susan Dalgety

From L to R: Sydney Kansengwa, Susan Banda and Olivia GIles
From L to R: Sydney Kansengwa, Susan Banda and Olivia GIles
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Busi pointed to her Chinese smartphone. “I tether my laptop to it, so I can access the internet,” she explains. “It is how I do my business. All I need is my laptop, my phone and about 2GB of data a month, and I can work.”

I blushed, then laughed. “Oh, Busi, I use at least twice that much data in a week, just on Twitter. I am embarrassed.”

“Don’t be,” she smiles.

“I like Facebook.”

Busi is not a digital nomad, a trust fund traveller chilling in a lakeside bar while a few local women sew tote bags from Chinese chitenje material that the social entrepreneur can then market online for £25 each.

She is the grand-daughter of my dear friend Homba, who died in July. She is also a single parent, with a large extended family that depends on her online medical supplies business for the food they eat, the clothes they wear and the school fees that will give them an education and, hopefully, a sustainable route out of poverty.

She learned about the business of buying hospital beds, syringes and surgical clamps while working as a sales rep for one of Malawi’s biggest firms.

“But then I was transferred to the maintenance department because the head of sales did not like me,” she explains, “So I decided to work for myself. I had the contacts, the networks. I knew the business, and I did not owe my former employer anything, so I thought I can do this myself.”

Six years later and Busi’s business is thriving, up to a point.

“I can’t get any working capital, even an overdraft, as you need property for collateral before the banks will lend to you,” she says, with some frustration.

“So there is no point in me bidding for government contracts. My clients are smaller clinics, NGOs and the like.

“Malawi is not a good place for small business people. Everyone, the government, the donors, tell us to be entrepreneurs, but there is no support for us. Microloans – a few thousand kwacha – are no good for someone like me. So I work with what I have, just like Nomsa,” she adds, pointing to her sister who is seated at an electric sewing machine in the corner of the room.

Nomsa has several businesses.

She is a dressmaker, charging around K8,000 (£8.50) for a colourful, made-to-measure outfit.

She also buys bundles of second-hand toys to sell in the local neighbourhood. “Or sometimes I will buy a pack of socks or underwear,” she smiles.

“It depends what is on offer from the vendors.” And she rents out two self-contained rooms she built on the edge of the family compound. “We all have to create our own work,” says Busi.

“Do whatever we can to survive.”

A few days before my catch up with Busi and Nomsa, I was reunited with a young woman whose early life can only be described as medieval.

Susan Banda was born with badly deformed legs, and without access to proper treatment and support, was forced to crawl on her belly to get around.

Malawi’s health service struggles to provide even the most basic care for its 18 million people.

Killer diseases such as malaria and HIV dominate the global headlines and attract the big-money donors and philanthropists, but conditions such as cerebral palsy or congenital deformities like Susan’s, are not a national – or a global - priority.

And deep-rooted cultural beliefs that witchcraft causes disabilities can mean that parents hide their disabled child, or worse, abandon them, just as Susan’s mother did when she was a toddler.

Today, Susan is a beautiful, confident young woman in her early twenties, who stands as tall as I do, and climbed the steps to her new business, a tailoring shop, much faster than I did.

Eight years ago, after an operation to amputate her deformed limbs, Susan got prosthetic legs at one of the two Malawi clinics run by Scottish charity, 500 miles.

Her new legs, made and fitted by Malawian technicians, mean that she now lives a normal life.

“I am going to be a successful businesswoman,” laughed Susan, as she showed me and Olivia Giles, the founder of 500 miles, round the shop that her adoptive parents, Sydney and Gertrude, had helped her open earlier this year.

“I think you would suit red lace,” she laughs, picking up a swathe of cloth.

“Maybe not,” I retorted.

Another Scottish charity, Cerebral Palsy Africa (CPA), works in Malawi, training physiotherapists and helping the country’s small number of special needs teachers to support children with cerebral palsy. A simple chair or standing frame, crafted from recycled cardboard, can change a child’s life.

As I write, a small team of CPA physios has just arrived in Malawi to finalise training for the charity’s Fit for School programme, which is funded by the Scottish government. The charity’s ambition in Malawi is to build a self-sustaining rehabilitation service for young children so that “they are not left lying on the floor, but are able to sit and to stand alone.”

“No-one knows how many children have cerebral palsy,” explains Olivia, “but children with the condition are by far our biggest group of patients at 500 miles, and CPA does superb work in this field.”

As does 500 miles, and all the other health charities, big and small, working in Malawi on everything from cervical cancer to cataracts.

But is this patchwork of care sustainable in the long term? Not according to Dr Leonard Banza, one of the country’s few orthopaedic surgeons. He made Malawi his home after fleeing war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo nearly two decades ago.

“Not long after I arrived I realised the government didn’t have much money,” he tells me over a coffee.

“So they are trying to provide healthcare with money from outside. But honestly, it is not sustainable. If the economy of the country does not improve, it will be very tricky. Impossible I think.”

A national challenge that businesswoman Busi understands only too well on a very personal level. “When our grandmother had her stroke, and couldn’t move, we had to learn how to do her physio ourselves. There are just not enough trained people in Malawi.

“Our system is all wrong. We small business people could develop Malawi’s economy, we pay our taxes, we don’t keep our money in our pockets to spend on big cars like the big guys. But all we can see is the rich getting richer, and the poor getting poorer. But for now, its life, our life.”

Find out more about the work of 500 miles and CPA here: www.500miles.co.uk and 
www.cerebralpalsyafrica.org.