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When selective city by-law application punishes SMEs

Local city councils are quick to chase poor women and men who try to make ends meet on the street by selling food stuffs such as nsima, yet when it comes to politically connected criminals and the affluent who break similar by-laws by building illegal structures and operating business enterprises without licences, such authorities are indifferent.

In this FRIDAY SHAKER, TAONGA SABOLA discovers that the situation is dire for some Malawians who are poor, uneducated and without vocational skills. Their efforts to put food on the table are thwarted by such selective enforcement of the by-laws. Life is not rosy for small micro-small and medium enterprises (SMSEs) in Malawi.

Forty-seven-year-old, Margaret Amos, a resident of Manje Township in Blantyre City, in a state of confusion. She does not know what to do next.

Since her husband died two years ago, life has been extremely tough for her and her four children.

She tried to look for a job as a house maid in Chiwembe, Kanjedza and Chinyonga townships in Blantyre with no success.

“By that time, I was left with K10,000. After thinking hard, I realised I had cooking skills so I went to Limbe Market to buy raw cassava to start a business of selling boiled cassava.

“I started selling the cassava in the neighborhood before taking it to Maselema where it sells like hot cakes during lunch hour. Unlike in the neighbourhood, sales are better here because we meet many customers from various factories around this area,” she said.

The microbusiness of selling boiled cassava has helped Amos and her family to live a life of hope and not begging.

But her joy appears short-lived following the announcement by the Blantyre City Council (BCC) to ban the sale of food cooked from home.

In a statement dated November 23, BCC Chief Executive Officer, Alfred Chanza, outlawed the sale of ready-to-eat food such as cooked and roasted maize, mandasi, cooked cassava, potato, sweet beer, sausage, birds and grasshoppers.

Chanza said the council shall confiscate and destroy such foods should any vendor be found selling them.

“I don’t know what to do next,” she said.

Equally confused is Fanny Khumbasa of Machinjiri Township in the city who survives on selling colour-flavoured potatoes known as zibwente.

Khumbasa, who is married to a watchman, said the take-home package of the husband is not enough to keep the family going for a month.

“We have children who need a lot of things, including food and clothing. Through this business, we are able to raise a little something to keep us going.

“But with this directive from the city council, we are confused. What crime have we committed?” she asked.

She said been to open a restaurant in town.

Amos and Khumbasa are just examples of thousands of women who are clinging to survival in the commercial capital by running micro-businesses.

Random interviews reveal that most of the microbusinesses involving cooked food are done by single women and widows trying to fend for their families.

Ironically, Amos, Khumbasa and many other women in the commercial capital are facing shrinking economic opportunities at a time Malawi is in the middle of commemorating 16 days of violence against women and girls.

Among others, economic right violation is seen as a breeding ground for many other violations as it often drives women into other socially unacceptable ways of earning money, including prostitution.

Tithetse Nkhanza Team Leader, Grace Malera, asked for more time before commenting on the matter.

Business Consult Africa Managing Director, Henry Kachaje, said with high unemployment levels in the country many people and women are engaging in microenterprises just to survive.

Kachaje said most of the businesses are so small that they cannot attain the standards being stipulated by Malawi Bureau of Standards and probably the standards city is going to be looking at.

“Banning microbusinesses like these ones has an impact and is going to suffocate the entrepreneurship spirit in the country. These microbusinesses are very significant in terms of creating sustainable livelihoods for most Malawians.

“People that ply in this trade like selling mandazi, selling boiled potatoes, cassava, have probably very little skills in terms of their education qualifications, so we might not even get them into the formal employment sector. Their level of capital is so low that they cannot also afford to do big businesses that are probably accepted within the city such a bakery. So they are being squeezed, to be honest, it is something that can be of concern,” Kachaje said.

He was, however, quick to note that it is also crucial to appreciate that from BCC’s point of view they have specific minimum standards.

“My suggestion is to understand where our youth and other disadvantaged people are those that are doing micro-businesses. Where are they in terms of the level of desperation or the level of trying to do something to just make themselves progress in life.

“I would think maybe the starting point would be, the city authorities, the Health Department, offering short courses that they can say, anyone who wants to be involved in trade, that involves probably in manufacturing or baking doughnuts and flitters or cooking whatever, we have got this one day or two day course in Chichewa and train and teach them on health issues so that they are at a level where they are being upgraded.

“And then they could be issuing some certificates that are going to complete and do such courses, allowing them to be trained with minimum specifications given to them in terms of maybe, how you prepare the food and how you do the packaging to make sure that they are hygienic. But a complete ban of someone who is trying to survive on mandasi, someone who is trying to survive on cooking potatoes might really be a lot more harsh on them,” Kachaje said.

Dean of Social Sciences at Catholic University, Gilbert Kachamba, said micro-businesses are significant to poor countries such as Malawi as they provide some income to many who are in these types of businesses.

He said, without such micro enterprises things would get worse.

“Businesses have to start small but most of micro businesses in Malawi have little potential of growing as there are a lot lacking for them to grow. Capital base is weak, competition is tough and as they grow there are alot regulations and standards that they may find it difficult cope with,” he said.

Indigenous Businesses Association of Malawi (Ibam) Chairperson, Mike Mlombwa, said micro-level business provides a platform through which entreprenuers experiment and get prepared to run big corporations.

Mlombwa said it was, therefore, critical that authorities nurture the microbusinesses by ensuring that they help them to grow rather than suffocating them.

He said helping the businesses to conform to standards set could be crucial in helping the small business to grow rather than banning them altogether.

BCC Public Relations Manager, Anthony Kasunda, said the ban is not designed to kill the entrepreneurship spirit in the city.

“It is a health alert. There is a threat of water borne diseases, including cholera, during rainy season, ” Kasunda said.

Ministry of Industry and Trade Spokesperson, Mayeso Msokera, said developing the micro-small and medium enterprises (MSME) is one of the top priorities of the Government of Malawi stemming from their significant role in job creation, economic inclusion and addressing rural and urban poverty.

Msokera said the MSME sector has the potential to promote indigenous entrepreneurship which can facilitate the absorption of excess labour, transfer modern technological skills, foster innovation and enhance international competitiveness of products originating from Malawi.

“In support of the MSME sector, the Government of Malawi established a number of statutory and other institutions to provide support services.

“These include: the Malawi Investment and Trade Centre (MITC) which promotes investments and facilitates export products and services; the Small and Medium Enterprise Institute (Smedi) which provides business development support services such as business trainings and business advisory services; the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) which promotes standards and quality and implementation of Malawi Standards; and the Technical Education, Vocational and Entrepreneurship Training Authority (Teveta) which promotes and regulates sustainable provision of quality technical, entrepreneurial and vocational education and trainings,” he said.

The world’s top economy, the United States is full of examples of microbusinesses which grew into larger corporations.

Well known giants such as Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Amazon, Google and many others all started in garages and grew with time.

So by banning the likes of Amos and Khumbasa, could we be crushing Malawi’s next ‘Apple’?


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