Malawi: Tame the appetite for foreign goods or else . . .

This week has been a fairly busy one in the world of news, from the Tanzanians trying to steal parts of our lake to by-elections in Mzimba that taught a lesson or two to both the People’s Party and its predecessor, the Democratic Progressive Party. One would thus be forgiven for missing out on some key stories such as:

 

  • Charles Chuka, Reserve Bank Governor, is panicking due to Malawi’s humongous appetite for forex, consuming $200 million per month when tobacco only raked in a similar amount for the whole year
  • There is a yawning chasm between what Malawi imports and what it exports, with imports at about K100 billion and exports at around K50 billion in the second quarter of the year 2012
  • The Robert Chasowa report is out, and confirms what was not a secret in the public domain, that the boy was murdered. Action soon, perhaps? Where soon shall mean not as has the case been with Misozi Chanthunya, murderer of Linda Gasa
  • President Joyce Banda slashed her delegation to Brussels to only six people! When President Mutharika went to Belgium in March 2005 he took 102 people. Yes, yes, Mutharika is gone and we should not dwell on the past, but still!
  • As is often the case when one dies in Malawi, they are grabbing each other’s throats for the wealth of the dead over there at Ndata Farm, part of the estate of the demised President Bingu wa Mutharika. We hear the duel involves former First Lady who was Mutharika’s wife for less than 24 months, versus Mutharika’s biological children.

Our focus for the week, however, is on item number one above i.e. that Malawi now needs to spend $200 million a month on imports.

Chikaonda

It must have been eleven years ago when a group of university students of which I was part sat down with then Finance Minister Matthews Chikaonda to argue against the then newly introduced university fees of K46,000 per year. The government introduced the fees at that time because the money for maintaining students at public universities was allegedly becoming inadequate.

We argued then that there was too much waste all over the place, from the billions of kwachas that were being lost to corruption to our failure to slash our appetite for imports. At that time, when Zimbabwe was at the peak of its success, Malawians were ordering almost anything from Zimbabwe, from the world’s most famous brands of suits and shoes to tomatoes, onions and eggs.

The verbal tussle with Chikaonda came to mind this week when Mr Chuka bemoaned the alarming demand for forex in Malawi, which, clearly, is unsustainable. Our main forex earner remains tobacco, which, as already said, was sold for less than $200 million this year. With our imports requiring this same amount per month, where shall we get the forex to finance this?

Hope could be placed on foreign currency denominated accounts of some non-governmental and international organizations, which is what Chuka also mentioned when sounding off his message of gloom. This, however, has proved unreliable in the past, which led to failure to pay for our fuel supplies on time, and also failure to honour obligation to international airlines.

Ken Lipenga says Malawi will receive $1 billion of budgetary support in 2012. This, at any rate, is good news, though it only translates into 5 months of import cover.

Here is my proposal for a solution: let us reduce our appetite for imports. Yes, we need to import some of the raw materials for production. This same paper you are reading the article from is imported, for instance. But there is a whole lot of imported stuff that is entirely non-essential, and could be cut out.

Why should we import fruits such as tangerines from South Africa, when in Mwanza these same fruits are rotting due to a lack of buyers? Why should we import Yum-yum from South Africa when Tambala Food Products Ltd has shown us for decades that better quality peanut butter can be processed right here at home?

The spirit of importation has its root in the fact that an average Malawian believes that chakunja n’chabwino, that only stuff made outside this country is the best. The average Malawian lacks the spirit to compete on the international stage. Even when it comes to human beings, foreign is best, in our minds. We lack confidence in ourselves. It is largely viewed as a success if our son or daughter marries a foreigner, more so if the foreigner is white.

Do you think I am exaggerating? Just look at our football. Rather than demand the best from our football administrators, we feel so contented for simply making it to the Africa Cup of Nations, and go as far as awarding the coach with the highest honour!

At the beginning of his Presidency, when President Mutharika was at his best, he tried to pump some self-confidence in us. ‘There are some people walking in the Victoria Avenue,’ said he, ‘who, when they see the Chayamba Building, say one day I will work in a building of this kind. A confident person says one day I will own a building of this kind. Malawi is not poor, but Malawians are poor.’

This is an area our national strategists need to think about. We need to have confidence in ourselves, our products and our people.

There is no shortage of experts who could counter-argue that Malawi is part of a common market, and that what I am advocating is protectionism, yet we need to remove barriers to free trade.

Listen: theory is theory, but let us drill down to the grim and sober realities that face us at present. It is either we swim or we sink. Right now we are drowning, and we need to find a way of staying afloat fast. We need to change our mentality now for ours to become a net importing nation.

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