Addicted to inaction


It is another year and the rainy season is back. The way nature decides to deal with the rains will once again determine the economic trajectory of my beloved Malawi. The overreliance on rained agriculture is something that every Malawian leader has said needs to change.

Unfortunately, not much is being done and has been done to change the status quo. Malawi has abundant resources that are yet to be tapped. For over 52 years, the country has been talking about diversification of its economy. The discussions around diversification take a cyclic approach, every time there is an external shock, we sing in unison about diversification, sometimes we even compete among ourselves as who has hit the highest musical note but as soon as the rains get better, everyone goes back to the old ways of doing things.

Suddenly, we recoil back into our shells of talking with no action. We roll back our cosmetic actions and find comfort in the things we are good at doing. Critics go quiet, politicians suddenly claim that it is not the weather that has saved the economy but their wise and dynamic leadership. Our leaders and policymakers get back to accumulating allowances from one workshop to another, one conference to another, discussing things we already know. Parliamentary committees will go on study tours to their own constituencies to discover the problems that they should have known. At the end of the day, we thrive on rent-seeking activities and do not engage in hard thinking and we talk, talk and talk and do nothing significant.


While it is important to recognise the efforts made by several administrations in Malawi to transform the economy from a predominantly consuming and importing country to a producing and exporting country, there is still more to be done. The figures do not make the case that we are moving in this direction. In 2015, Malawi exported goods and services valued at $1,080 million and Malawi imported goods and services valued at $2,312 million. This makes our country a net importer of goods and services. Unless something changes in the way we do things, the situation will not improve.

Almost everything this country exports depends on the rain. We export agricultural products, we export them in their raw form and sorting out this overreliance on rain-fed agriculture is extremely important. In 2015, the top five agricultural products accounted for 65 percent of Malawi’s total exportearnings. These five are raw stemmed tobacco ($435 million); sugar ($94 million); tea ($62 million); peas ($56 million) and non-stemmed tobacco ($53 million).

In this composition, tobacco alone accounted for close to 45 percent. Talk of diversification from agriculture, let alone diversification from tobacco. In the current anti-smoking campaign environment and the problems with tobacco sales experienced this year, Malawi is facing dwindling tobacco revenue and a potential shortage of foreign exchange.


It would, therefore, not be wrong to claim that in Malawi tobacco farming is not just a farming issue, it is also an economic, political and an equity issue. Diversifying Malawi’s economy out of tobacco is a complicated matter. However, pretending that all is well with tobacco dependency in Malawi is not a long-term solution. Malawi cannot keep on burying its head in the sand and hope that one day there will be a miracle substitute to tobacco. While immediate full-scale diversification from reliance on tobacco farming may not be a realistic goal, a planned shift to other crops has intrinsic benefits in the long run. Investment in research, technology and infrastructure that will help Malawi diversify its economy is no longer a choice but a must!

It is also significant to realise that over half of all Malawi’s exports are in raw form (55 percent in 2015). No value addition and no processing. This means that we are exporting jobs that could have been created in Malawi through processing activities. Malawi is also exporting the premiums associated with value addition accruing from value addition processing that are taking place outside the borders of this country. Malawi cannot and should be contented with the current situation at the time when it needs to free itself from the vicissitudes of poverty and cyclical financial doldrums. It is time to embark on export-led economic development without excuses.

Malawi started exporting raw tobacco in 1893, over the years this industry has one of the most developed infrastructures in Malawi with established market systems, research and processing companies and established buyers and yet the farmers that grow this crop are still among the poorest despite Malawi’s tobacco being part of the major blends in many countries including Camel and Marlboro brands.

How I long for a day when this country will prioritise issues according to their importance to the greater populace and not narrow personal or political interests. This day will come when Malawians come together to deal with the cancer of the political economy which seems to dominate every facet of our country. Many times, I have heard the sentiments that, as Malawians, we know what the problem is and what we must do and we need just to do it.

Somehow what lacks is serious political shift. A shift that resembles the sacrifices of the early freedom fighters who did not care about their life but the benefits of their sacrifice. Malawi in in great need of people who do not care about winning the next election or scoring political points but want to do the right things regardless of the personal consequences.

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