It is 7:00hrs on a Tuesday morning; streets of Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe, are getting busy and fuller. Everyone is getting to work, undoubtedly to make a living for the day.
While the privileged few are seen driving to workplaces and business spots, a majority of the residents are trekking on foot to places like Kanengo Industrial Site, where they work as seasonal labourers in tobacco and other agricultural factories.
It is also not uncommon to see many others flocking to the government’s Regional Labour Offices in Area 3 to try their luck with potential bosses.
Along the Area 25 C stretch, which connects to Kanengo, lingers a familiar face; it is that of 17-year-old Agness, a female vendor who hawks facemasks to motorists, cyclists and passersby.
She braves the biting cold every morning to sell her merchandise costing K150 each.
Taking advantage of the long queues snaking the whole stretch to Kanengo, with vehicles moving at a snail’s pace, Micheal hops from one vehicle window to another with a box of facemasks in her hands.
She tirelessly pleads with motorists to buy from her, further reminding them that the Covid pandemic, which has led to the boom of facemasks’ business, is still here.
She catches my attention and I decide to pull over. She immediately notices me and runs to my window in anticipation of another good sale for the day.
“Tiguleni mask aunt, a black nawo alipo K150 imodzi,” she cheerfully says to me.
I immediately strike a conversation with her as I reach out for my purse.
“I come from Mgona and look after three younger siblings. My parents are in the village; so, I am here trying to make ends meet,” Micheal said.
At the peak of the second wave of the Covid pandemic, she said life got tougher for her parents and children.
They barely had food for the day or money to afford basic necessities such as soap and clothes.
She said things got worse when her father, who was working as a security guard at one of the secondary schools in Ntcheu District, was laid off due to economic shocks resulting from the pandemic.
“After days of piecework, I raised K10,000 and left for Lilongwe in search of opportunities. I spent months on end looking for a job in futility and that is when I decided to venture into this business,” she explained.
Agness has a working capital of K8,000 on average, which gets her at least two boxes of facemasks at K4,000 each.
Each box has about 60 pieces. She, however, bemoans that it sometimes takes one full week for people to buy all facemasks.
When business is good, the two boxes last a maximum of three days, making a cumulative total of K18,000 from the 120 pieces.
“The business is failing to grow because I use the money for buying food and household necessities,” Agness complained.
The story of Agness is a reality for hundreds of young people in the country’s major cities, some of whom have, overtime, resorted to illegal vending in an effort to eke a living.
Another sad reality is that, in the various programmes meant at uplifting lives of the poor and vulnerable groups, some hardworking people are neglected.
As contested by Brighton Sitima, a nomadic vendor at Area 18 in Lilongwe, social protection programmes would be meaningful if they targeted productive individuals who would easily graduate.
“I have seen people in my area get earmarked for the Social Cash Transfer Programme but most of the beneficiaries are either too old or frail or too young to put the money they get to meaningful use. If I had an opportunity to benefit from the initiative, I would boost my business but I was told that I do not qualify,” said Sitima, who comes from Phwetekere.
He said, unless the government reviews policies driving programmes such as the Social Cash Transfer Programme and Public Works Programme, the gap between the rich and the poor in Malawi might continue to widen.
But Chief Economist in the Division of Poverty Reduction and Social Protection in the Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs, Yona Phiri, says, when implementing social protection programmes, Malawi aligns with the vision of its major developing partner, the United Nations, which stresses on leaving no one behind regardless of whether they are productive in themselves or not.
Phiri said the National Social Support Policy intimates on getting everyone involved in the country’s economic activities through cushioning and social support, among others, in an effort to uplift people’s livelihoods.
Official statistics for Malawi show that over nine million Malawians live below the poverty line, out of which 20 percent live in abject poverty.
“We have programmes for those that cannot afford minimum standards of life; we are talking of people with chronic illnesses or child-headed households or, maybe, those who are physically challenged because even by merely taking that money to buy food, they are taking part in economic activities. We cannot leave them aside because they are weak and do not offer any labour,” he said.
According to Phiri, in years of implementation, there have been inconsistencies in identification criteria for beneficiaries, such that the government’s objective of reaching a single beneficiary with about three programmes for maximum results, in terms of economic transformation, was barely achieved for it to see people graduate.
Social Protection Technical Officer for the International Labour Organisation Patience Matandiko asked the government to expand the scope of its National Social Protection System.
“We are talking of developing a programme that takes into account not just meeting the needs of those that are considered poor and vulnerable, really, but taking into account those that may not be in the mentioned groups but will, at one time in life, face risks and contingencies that will affect their livelihoods,” Matandiko said.
A recent United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund report says that, in the 2020-21 financial year, the World Bank allocated K29.1 billion to social cash transfer initiatives through a grant under the Malawi Social Support for Resilient Livelihoods Project.
The amount includes K14.65 billion for regular cash transfers, K11.5 billion for the Covid Urban Cash Intervention and the rest went to strengthening harmonised delivery systems, Unified Beneficiary Registry and other operational activities.
The Government of Malawi has, in the 2022-23 National Budget, allocated K3 billion for social protection programmes.
Government records show that the Social Cash Transfer Programme has, so far, covered 220,447 households, translating to 925,959 individuals in 28 districts, while school feeding programmes have reached two million learners.