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‘The population of people who are begging has increased’: Times Special Part One

In Saturday’s edition of Times Special, a Times Television programme which addresses topical issues, host BRIAN BANDA engaged Mike Mlombwa, Indigenous Business Association of Malawi (Ibam) President, on business and governance issues in the country. Excerpts:

How are businesses faring in the country?

It is a good question, Brian. To say the truth, businesses are struggling. We have seen indigenous Malawians struggling. Some have gone bankrupt. Some have taken a break. Other people have gone back to the village— because businesses are struggling. The other day, you heard President Arthur Peter Mutharika saying we lost, perhaps, 50 years in the past; [you heard him hinting that] things did not go as planned.He then said that he wants a strong middle class, which is the engine room [of the economy]. We had hope that things would change. That is why we said that we, as Ibam, would work with the government. We thought that, that way, our objectives would be met. What we expected is not what is happening. Operations of SMEs [Small and Medium Enterprises] and the lives of Malawians have not changed for the better.

What did you expect?

We wanted policies. Favourable policies that would make it clear to foreign direct investors that some businesses are for Malawians. We wanted employment opportunities. We should have said [to foreigners] that these grades are for Malawians. But things are not working this way. People are coming in containers to work here. We said we would have deliberate policies to empower SMES, without anyone clinging to everything. I don’t blame the President.For everything.That said, children of big business people are running aimlessly. One asks: do they know what they are doing or not? Foreigners are getting reach while we, indigenous Malawians, are getting poorer everyday. In other countries, indigenous people are respected. Not here. Malawians are angry. I ask myself why God? Why us? If you have a court case against a foreigner, you lose. As I am speaking, 90 percent of our economy is being controlled by foreigners. The President has tried his best, but things are still not working. The President cannot do everything alone. That is why he appoints advisers. The private sector is for businesses and we needed to be having opportunities. We needed to be having audiences with the President every now and then.

Don’t you meet the President?

As Ibam President, I have met the President several times. But there is protocol to be followed. You need to book appointments. I proposed that we needed a meeting for people drawn from the Northern, Southern, Central and eastern regions. It has been difficult to meet the President in the past two years. We, as businesses, we wanted to tell the President the truth about what would help the country develop. Yes, we have registered single digit inflation, interests rates have been reduced, but only in books; theory. Practically, on the ground, these have not translated to meaningful development. The population of people who are begging for alms has increased. Asians, including the Chinese, you can agree with me, have infiltrated rural areas. Why are people not reporting to the government. Our children will have a case against us. They will say, ‘what did you do?’ when all the land is gone. Our children will be landless because all land will be in the hands of foreigners. They will have no place to stay on; no land for farming purposes. It is a crucial issue. Everyone is angry. No one can carry out a business venture of K4 billion alone. How many SMES can benefit if they were to share this [K4 billion]. If they [policymakers] recognise Ibam; if they empower Ibam, Ibam can play a key role in transforming our economy. We [Ibam] are apolitical, but we can work with ODPP, Ministry of Trade and Industry to see how things are panning out in the country. If there are issues of collateral, we, as Ibam, would act as collateral for indigenous Malawians. By now, we would even have a wing at Capital Hill, a recognised structure, with constituencies from Karonga to Nsanje [districts] to promote hard work.

One other thing, taxes. MRA [Malawi Revenue Authority]is struggling. If SMEs were given a chance, MRA could collect even K3 trillion. But people are being frustrated. We hear of cases involving foreigners: K50 billion, K40 billion but we don’t get reports of how the cases end. Those things are frustrating people. These things are raising questions in us: are the people the boss appointed helping him? If given a chance, we can tell the President the truth about what is happening in the country. Look at the kind of investors we are having. When we say investor; an investor cannot come here to open a filling station, grocery. No. It’s only in…[ interception by Brian]. That’s not an investor. Even you, Brian, can open a filling station. You just go to a bank. You get a loan tell your wife, brothers to run the business. Today, you find foreigners in catering businesses. They are getting mad with money. They buy four, five vehicles. Range Rover, Lexus, latest models of Mercedez Benz, what have you. Elsewhere, indigenous people are respected. The President just declares and waits for expansion [of initiatives]; expand this to help Malawians.

We have Principal Secretaries, Cabinet ministers and directors; they are not helping the boss to change things for the better. We, the people, are the ones who vote. Tell foreign companies, ‘work with these people’. When they leave, they will leave our people with the expertise. If Ibam can be empowered, we can scrutinise everyone. We used to have Blantyre Print etc; all these are dead. Flat payment has killed businesses. They can’t tell me,‘get this K5 billion business, but pay K100 million up front’; hence, we are being looked down upon. Implementation is what is lacking. That is why an indigenous Malawian cannot win a case against a foreigner. People may be hating on the President; yet it could be the people the President appointed who are at fault. The aides are there to executive the President’s ideas.

I thought, as Ibam President, you meet President Mutharika. What do you tell him?

When I met him, we started well. The President once told me, us, that his life is premised on making sure that SMES flourish; he wants lives of air conditioner repairers, vegetable sellers to be transformed. That is why he initiated Buy Malawi Strategy. It will not work. Buy Malawi Strategy is not aboutbuying clothes from foreign companies, the only one empowered being the tailor. But, if we analyse the

Buy Malawi Strategy, there are elements such as love for one another, love for the country, working with the government in power. But people are quiet [about Buy Malawi Strategy] now. They are not helping the President. Ibam should be empowered. For the economy to work, Ibam must be recognised. It should be working with ODPP [Office of the Director of Public Procurement]. Our duty is to convince the indigenous Malawian on the importance of paying tax and what tax money does [in promoting service delivery in public sectors]. As things stand, Malawians do not appreciate the importance of that [taxes] because foreigners are being empowered. If a Malawian and a foreigner buy things from the same source, goods in the Malawian’s shop will be expensive because foreigners do not pay taxes. Foreigners are selling goods at prices cheaper than those offered by Malawians while the Malawian is being milked thin through taxes. Malawi has become a money laundering point. Foreigners are cleaning their money here and no questions are raised. Malawi has become a cleaning passage of money. They don’t borrowmoney from banks; they have their means of sourcing money.

Do our leaders know that Malawi has become a money laundering point?

Yes, they know. They know where the dollars are coming from; they know where the money they [foreigners] are using for constructing hotels is coming from. Can’t Malawians construct hotels? If they come together, they can. The government should put in place policies aimed at protecting indigenous Malawians. That is why I am saying we are getting poorer and poorer. I cry, literally cry, everyday I take the Chitawira Road. We used to have Phekani there [Chitawira Shopping Centre]. We used to buy meat there; we used to buy everything there.Today, there is another shop [displacing Mr Phekani]. Mr Phekani has opened a small shop at Pensulo [a location in the Shire Valley]. When we say bailout, we don’t want the government to give us money. People have to understand that, sometimes, when you borrow money to pay back in three years, you may face challenges.

Do you want the government to settle debts for indigenous Malawians?

Not settling debts for people, but creating business opportunities. If there are business opportunities, people can be able to clear loans with banks. The government is running, companies are running, parastatals are running. Where are they getting the goods? [Are they getting them from indigenous Malawians or foreigners?]

People may say you are enjoying the fruits of this government; you being Board Chairperson for Air Cargo.

I thank the President for appreciating my capabilities. I attend several meetings to understand what the President is saying. But my heart is with indigenous Malawians. Even at Competitions and Fair Trading Commission, I go there when the need arises [to stand up for an indigenous Malawian]. At Air Cargo, if goods of indigenous Malawians are stuck I say, ‘this is a Malawian’. People can investigate me. Even myself, I am sitting on time bomb. I am strong.

You have many debts?

I can’t go to car dealers to buy new cars because we are watching as spectators. If I hear that you are selling a vehicle, I come, buy and put it on the road. The problem, in Malawi, is implementation. Take, Buy Malawi Strategy, for example. If they do not partner us, it will not achieve desired outcomes. I understand that there are big businesses Malawians can’t carry out alone. Like the purchase of fertiliser. Etc. But, in Dubai, if you have no capital; you are still given a chance. It’s policy. Not here. Foreigners are getting mad with money. Some foreigners; we chat well with them. But others have serious connections; serious connections.

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