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From CheMakengere to Makengere Plaza

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It is unthinkable that a teetotaller would nickname himself after a drunkard and expect to achieve great things in life, yet one Ellard Limbe did just that and has never regretted.

It goes back to one afternoon when Limbe, then aged 15 and a male cousin of his left their village in Zomba on a bicycle for Namilongo along the Zomba-Blantyre Road, more than 50 kilometres from their home.

On the way after the sun had set, the teenagers had a flat tyre. As they had no tools, they could not fix the problem but nonetheless decided to continue their journey on foot, pushing the bicycle along.

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When they went past Zomba Central Hospital heading towards a trading centre simply known as Three Miles, a man who was in a drunken state walking in the same direction joined them.

At first, the cousins thought the drunken man would go past them, but, to their surprise, he did not. He slowed down and started a conversation with the boys, asking where they were heading to.

The boys were not comfortable with the man and thought he was pretending to be drunk when he was a thug. But it later dawned on them that he was harmless and genuinely wanted their company.

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The man was friendly and started telling the boys about himself in his drunken stupor, saying his name was CheMakengere. The name in the Yao language, loosely translated, meant he was a very rich person.

As the three walked, the stranger would put his hand into his pocket and shake it, making coins inside to chink while saying in Yao une CheMakengere, une CheMakengere (I am a rich man, I am a rich man).

The man kept on bragging about his supposedly riches all the way until he parted with the boys. As he left them, little did the drunkard know that his name would have a bearing on the life of Limbe.

When Limbe returned home, he narrated their encounter with the drunken stranger and from then onwards, would joke with his relations that his name was Makengere each time he had money.

The nickname has clung to Limbe since he met the drunk that day in 1965 and would over the years inspire him to build a multimillion kwacha office complex in Liwonde Town, naming it Makengere Plaza.

The nearly K360 million-Makengere Plaza, an imposing building with three floors and is a big attraction in the rapidly growing town, is the realisation of Limbe’s cherished dream to go into real estate business.

“It has always been our wish to go into real estate business. With entrepreneurship knowledge, we understand that real estate business is not too demanding for ageing people like us,” Limbe, 67, says.

But Limbe, a Management Consultant with Eastern and Southern African Management Institute (Esami), says he initially wanted to build hostels for students at the University of Malawi’s (Unima) Chancellor College in Zomba.

He says the idea to build students’ hostels came about after he and his wife travelled to Russia to attend a graduation ceremony of their son who was graduating as a medical doctor.

“We learnt that the hostel in which our son was residing belonged to an individual investor who had partnered with the university to provide accommodation for students,” he says.

Limbe, who previously worked with Chancellor College and The Polytechnic, says he knows very well the challenges students at the two institutions face when it comes to accommodation.

“The university can’t provide accommodation to every student,” says Limbe, who is based at Esami Headquarters in Arusha, Tanzania. “This forces some students to rent accommodation on their own.”

But what he found most disheartening was that some students were renting homes where landlords either brewed “illicit beer” or did not mind putting female and male students together in one house.

“For these reasons, my wife and I decided to emulate what we saw in Russia by putting up hostels. We approached Chancellor College to provide land for the project while we would provide funds.

“The Principal of Chancellor College told us the idea was a brilliant one, but asked us to come up with a proposal which we did and presented it to him,” Limbe says.

Sadly, Limbe never brought his hostel plan to fruition although the proposal was acknowledged and even after he had been assured that it would be presented to the University Council for its final say.

He says he followed up the proposal for many years but to no avail, before he finally gave up the plan to build a students’ hostel at Chancellor College.

“Since time was running out, we had another idea and, this time, we decided to build an office block in Liwonde where we have settled, as a second option,” Limbe says.

Perhaps the most striking aspect about the Makengere Plaza is that despite its enormous cost by Malawian standards, it has been built without obtaining a loan from a money lending institution.

And that partly explains why the complex, which has open space measuring 2,700 square metres and is scheduled to be inaugurated later this year barring any setback, has taken almost eight years to build.

“We didn’t get a loan from any money-lending institution. I have been using my money from my monthly salary and gratuities earned over time we have been outside the country,” Limbe says.

“This project has also taken long to complete because when none of us [he and his wife] is available, the site is closed until one of us is available.”

He says they wanted to make sure all materials bought for the project are used for the intended purpose to avoid wastage, adding: “That is why we have spent little on the project because of strict supervision.”

The project also slowed down due to other challenges it faced, ranging from price increases and unavailability of cement, to water shortage and high cost of duty for windows that were imported.

Limbe says when he bought windows from China, invoices were, in his words, “uplifted” and resulted in his paying too much duty to Malawi Revenue Authority, much to his displeasure.

“All the same, I had to pay although with a lot of bitterness because the money I had saved for construction went towards paying unnecessary overcharged duty which I did not plan for,” he says.

“I consider the uplifting of the invoices was unfair and discouraging to future developers like my children [living abroad] who have plans to put up houses and other projects in Malawi.”

Limbe, who has worked for Esami for more than 26 years, says he built the office complex in Liwonde because it is a growing town with many proposed projects, besides being where they have settled.

“I understand government will soon start building a [dry] port, among projects it has earmarked for Liwonde. Land is also available and cheaper than in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu,” he says.

The second born in a family of seven, Ellard Barker Limbe was born to Julius and Ethel Limbe (who are both deceased). He is a devout Christian of the Seventh Adventist Church.

Limbe originally came from Nyamwelo Village, Traditional Authority Kuntumanji in Zomba and went to Matandani and Chichiri secondary schools in Neno and Blantyre respectively.

After completing his secondary education, he worked in government for about five years before he resigned to seek greener pastures in the private sector, first joining Unima.

Limbe, a father of six who has always aimed high in his life, continued to educate himself while in employment and went on get his bachelor’ s and master, s degrees. He is currently pursuing a doctorate degree.

He says he always wanted to be like his father who was a district commissioner and who, he claims, was one of the few educated people where he came from during his time.

“As district commissioner, he was a respected man and many people went to him for advice,” Limbe says. “He taught me the virtual of hard work and self-reliance and told me to always aim high.”

Limbe says his long stay in Tanzania has taught him two things about the people of the East African nation: They learn things fast and are hard working.

“They are innovative and hard-working, especially women. They do not wait for their husbands to bring food in the house. When husbands are at work, women will be involved in income-generating activities.”

And talking about women, they say behind the success of every man is a woman and this is true for Limbe, who says his wife Margaret has given him invaluable support towards the office project.

“I want to thank her for being a loving and hard-working wife. Without her, this project wouldn’t be where it is now. She spends most of her time on the project supervising while I am in Arusha working.

“I also want to thank my children who have always encouraged us to finish the project when we were facing difficulties,” says Limbe, who will celebrate his 68th birthday in November and is about to retire.

The building is not yet completed, but it is already generating interest and positive comments from admirers, what with its large glasses and three floor levels, according to Limbe.

He says: “The plan is that by the end of August [this year], the building should be completed.”

There are many Malawians who attempt to come up with projects like Limbe’s, but fail to finish them for various reasons and often end up losing the unfinished structures to money-lending institutions.

Limbe says the trick in successfully implementing such big real estate projects lies in one maintaining discipline and being focused all the time.

“It is not easy to put up a structure like this one, but it is not impossible either,” he says. “One just needs to be focused and disciplined. Focus and discipline are extremely important in executing such a project.”

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