There is no shortage of enterprise in Malawi, but the global economy is a brutal market where only the powerful flourish, writes Susan Dalgety.
Her accent was unmistakeable. “Come and taste your Malawian wine here,” she shouted, in tones that had been clearly honed in the west of Scotland, not downtown Lilongwe.
Clutching my over-full shopping bag, bursting with sweet potatoes, tomato jam and home-made peanut butter, I headed in the direction of the commanding voice, “Beautiful Malawian fruit wines, try them here.”
I had barely been in Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi, for 12 hours, and already I had stumbled across one of the many Scots who have built their life here. Not as owners of large farm estates or luxurious tourist lodges, but as Malawians, working as medics, teachers, or as in Margaret Ngwira’s case, small-scale wine producers.
Today she was selling her wine at a farmer’s market, set up to showcase small producers, from young women who grow aubergines and peppers in their township, to grandmothers from the north selling honey.
“Try some mulberry wine, or strawberry,” Margaret said, pouring me a generous sample of each. And as I sipped delicious fruit wine under the hot midday sun, she explained how a native of Lennoxtown had ended up producing fruit wine here, in the heart of southern Africa.
“I came in 1968, as a VSO volunteer, and met Timothy, my husband. We were married in 1970, and I have been here ever since.
“Timothy died last year,” she said, quietly, then rallied and offered me a taste of her peach wine.
“But I have Lyton, who was the top student at Bunda College, as my scientific officer,” she said, pushing forward a shy young man, “And we are making great wines. We had a blind tasting in the Scottish Parliament with them,” pointing to a board covered in photographs of Linga Wine’s 2017 launch in Scotland.
Margaret’s story, of a young woman travelling to Malawi to volunteer, then falling in love, is not that unusual. We are sub-letting the home – and cat – of a young Norwegian woman and her Malawian partner, while they spend time in Oslo with their first baby. Malawi can be a very seductive country.
What is perhaps different about Margaret is her single-minded commitment to Malawi’s economic development. She is an academic librarian by profession, but since 2005, she and her late husband have been doing their bit to boost Malawi’s export numbers. In 2017, Malawi exported goods and services worth around £1.5 billion. In the same year, Scotland exported £81.4 billion, with 60 per cent going to the rest of the UK.
The global economy is a brutal market. Only the powerful, or those with a precious commodity to sell, flourish. Without sufficient foreign exchange and tax revenues that exports bring, governments cannot afford to properly feed and educate their citizens. It is that simple.
Malawi is not powerful, and while there is very likely oil under its magnificent lake which covers one third of the country, it has very few natural resources, and a very modest industrial base. It’s biggest export by far, tobacco, is no longer the cash crop it once was.
It is landlocked, which means exporting goods is an expensive, logistical nightmare, and while its fertile land can grow anything, from rice to coffee and fruit for Margaret’s wines, most of the farming is small scale.
Millions of people grow just enough maize, pumpkins and tomatoes to feed their families, with a little left over to sell for precious soap, salt and school fees.
They are also at the mercy of the ever-changing global climate. A few weeks ago, in the south of Malawi, much of this year’s maize crop was damaged, or even destroyed, by torrential rain and wind.
Development experts from rich countries have pondered for decades on how best to support low-income countries to become, if not rich, at least moderately better off.
The World Bank invests billions each year on interventions to try and grow “diversified, competitive, shock-resilient” economies in countries where classrooms are packed full of children, eager to learn, who will probably leave school with no hope ever of finding formal employment.
But there is no shortage of enterprise in Malawi. Everywhere you go, people are buying and selling, making and mending. Nothing goes to waste in a country where even discarded plastic bags can become a football, and self-reliance is essential for survival. “I am collecting these bricks to build a youth and children’s centre,” says Everson Mapayani, who at 28 is Malawi’s youngest councillor, pointing to a six-foot high pyramid of village-fired bricks made from red African soil.
His ward is in Salima District, 70 miles outside the capital. Its scattered villages, simple primary schools built of breeze blocks and countless maize gardens are typical of the whole country. So too is the poverty. Children in torn, third or fourth-hand clothes, follow us everywhere. Middle-aged women, years of hard work and many pregnancies etched on their faces, sit outside their homes, cooking beans over firewood, while men gather under the shade of trees, gossiping.
Everson is up for re-election on 21 May, along with the country’s President, its 193 MPs and 462 councillors.
“I will win,” he grins, with all the confidence of a young man in a hurry. “I grew up in a very poor family. I got a place at a government boarding school, but my parents could not afford the fees, so I had to leave after only one term.”
He shrugged away the memory. “So I enrolled at the local community day secondary school next to my home and when I was in first year, I became the member of Malawi’s youth parliament for my area. I was born into my family, in this area, for a reason. My dream is to change my ward, physically and emotionally.” His rhetoric may seem a little overblown, even for an ambitious young politician, but his commitment to his home and its future development is unarguable. Just like Margaret’s.
“I love my home, my area,” he says, loping off into the early evening sunset, his party baseball cap slightly askew.
“See you next week, when I will show you the clinic we built with our district development funds.”
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