Developing Malawi from its rural heartlands


From independence in 1964 successive governments have prioritised development of the people as the best strategy that should accompany our sovereign status. Each government has had brilliant plans which unfortunately have neither been rolled out fully nor efficiently.

When we consider that 50 years have just gone by and that huge volumes of resources have been poured into various development initiatives what we have to show for it is disheartening. The reality is that our economics have marginalised many and contributed directly to creating much poverty against popular expectation.  Clearly we need to formulate radical policies that develop Malawi in ways that pull over eight million people out of poverty.

We should premise development planning on the fact that the majority of poor Malawians are rural and that to develop them, policy must focus on opening up rural economies and better linking rural and urban economies in a mutually re-enforcing dynamic.  Since 2004 there has been a rather theoretical emphasis on turning this nation from an importing and consuming economy to a producing and exporting economy.


Yet it should be recognised that this is an essentially long term goal for which the country has no ready capacity. Even when it is achieved it would still leave millions locked in poverty for some time yet. Low levels of education and slow adaptation to technologies remains a setback unless government fast-tracks establishment of community technical colleges and other public resource facilities that link a ‘rural agriculture revolution with an urban industrial revolution’  This I say because I am adamant in my belief that the answer to Malawi’s development lies in radical transformation of rural economies to enable the generation of wealth principally through agriculture.

Unfortunately we have prioritised farm input subsidies, a policy which locks millions into subsistence farming, subsidises consumption rather than production for farmers who wish to break with survivalist farming. Fisp has not only created dependence on government or killed farmers’ initiative, it is unsustainably costly, highly politicised and fraud fraught.

To transform agriculture Malawi requires policies which link individual farmers, cooperatives or other business groups with the private sector for farm inputs, equipment, supplies and transport. It is time for the country to commercialise rural agriculture and to create a new cadre of farmers with access to adequate capital necessary to increase production, diversify products, improve processing and develop sustainable markets.


It is time to develop flexible financing and capacity building strategies that rapidly transform agriculture into business enterprises shifting from the notion of agriculture as a flagship rural development programme.

It is time to define modalities for public private collaboration that enable rural people to develop themselves through medium to large scale agro-businesses. Such a shift must begin with the understanding that agriculture enterprise is a private sector niche therefore planning must support policies that ultimately enable private sector institutions and individual investors to develop rural business enterprises, be they

cooperatives, business clubs, associations or formal companies. At the same time government should encourage large companies to invest directly and so create job opportunities for local skilled and semi-skilled people to generate steady incomes. The private sector, not

government, must mobilise and deliver farm inputs. There are adequate premises to argue that putting government on top of input mobilisation, warehousing and distribution logistics only fuels corruption, which in turn fuels poverty and locks down the country in stagnation. It’s strange that we hope to build a capitalist economy on a rather socialist platform that puts government in control of all development resources thereby sustaining the dominance of political elites over public wellbeing.

For Malawi to develop strong self-sustaining rural economies government must work with banks and other development finance institutions so that ordinary people can have access to investment funds not self-enslaving personal loans! In this respect, the humongous resources invested in Fisp annually are better spent in business financing systems, procurement of technologies and of critical equipment such as tractors not as government but through strategic public private partnerships that move capital resources to business development experts in the private sector.

Farming can become a major business enterprise by actively engaging the large pool of educated, energetic and innovative youth who already reside in rural communities. What this potential talent basically requires is training in agro-business management, support to develop cooperatives and companies and steady capitalisation of modest business enterprises.  This is where the greenbelt project comes to life. The project lends itself well to both rain-fed and irrigation farming and can resurrect and radically expand the age-old production system of settlement schemes or the kibbutz as used in Israel.

The greenbelt drive is to be supported by the Zambezi waterway initiative which has enormous potential for transforming the transport infrastructure enabling Malawi to import cheaply and export all types of processed and unprocessed agriculture products. That these projects have since stalled is most unfortunate! But it has to be recognised from the outset that agriculture has a ‘female face’ although women have not contributed optimally to rural economies because they cannot access capital resources to establish and grow their businesses.

It is time for government and the private sector to invest in training and funding female-led agri-businesses and other enterprises in rural areas as this entails positive spin offs in improved household economics, family health, child development and increased use of educational services.   As we invest in rural road networks, business growth centers, education or technical skills training let us put total transformation of rural economies at the heart of the drive through agriculture.

A generously financed public private transformative strategy that turns agriculture into 100 percent enterprise will feed as well as develop Malawi from its rural heartlands sooner, sustainably and in an eco-friendly manner.

As we close: Malawi is not poor; Malawians are poor. And the reasons are poor policies and reckless management of resources.

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