Artisanal and small scale mining in Malawi is often associated with men but women too are slowly breaking into the sector.
Such is the story of Lydia Kawisi of Mizanje Village in Traditional Authority Chigaru’s area in Blantyre.
Even after over 30 years in the industry, she has not reaped any enviable benefits as the poor condition of her house 100 metres away from the M1 road near Lirangwe Trading Centre will testify.
But she is one of the few women in Malawi that put to test the dominance of men in the field.
Kawisi ventured into lime mining in Lirangwe in the late 1980s.
She learnt the trade from her father whose income came solely from lime mining.
“Initially I was not into the actual production. I used to buy and re-sell elsewhere. I then went into actual production from the mining site in the 1980s,” she recalls.
Kawisi does not hide the fact that it was not easy to be accepted into the field at that time as this was regarded as a men’s business only.
“I faced numerous gender stereotype discriminations. This happened despite the fact that some of the men were mentored by my father. It was hard for them to accept me into the trade,” she says.
Kawisi however fought on until three other women who happened to be daughters of one of the miners joined her.
“The resistance told me that I was a threat to them. I worked harder instead and gave no room for theft during production from the ground to the time of sales,” Kawisi says.
Although the women were accepted, they were oppressed in one way or the other but the women endured for three years when they thought of having their own enterprise.
At that time, Kawisi was a member of Chitukuko cha Amayi Mmalawi (CCM), a women empowerment arm of the Malawi Congress Party regime.
But she did not know that her interest into mining had attracted the attention of the high authorities in government of the time.
That was until former president Joyce Banda, then a prominent women empowerment activist, and then official hostess Cecelia Kadzamira visited Kawisi and the other women at their office to appreciate what they were doing.
Kawisi was advised to form a women in mining grouping in her village.
“I asked the men I worked with to bring their wives so we could work together on our own as women. This was the birth of our Lirangwe Women Lime Makers,” she says.
Each member was given K6, 000 to boost their business.
Kawisi boasts: “Those were years of plenty. We were making good progress and were considered the most shining women in Lirangwe. Most of us managed to build houses and were able to pay school fees for our children from lime mining.”
Years later, the group was adopted by the National Association of Business Women (Nabw).
In 1996, under Nabw, they got a loan of K500, 000 which they shared amongst themselves as capital for their business.
“After Nabw noted our seriousness, they linked us up with European Union who constructed this building for us. Before that, we didn’t have a store, lime milling and packaging rooms,” Kawisi says.
Things went on well for some time until when Nabw started withdrawing its technical and financial support.
At around the same time, the group won a tender to be supplying 100 tonnes of lime to Namibia annually which would have boosted their enterprise a great deal. However, they did not have the capacity and they ended up losing the contract.
“We went to government and private sector to help us with resources for us to produce more but none helped. We lost the tender just like that,” she says.
Later, the group became a member of One Village One Product under the District Commissioner’s office.
“The DC sent some officers who asked how they could help us develop and we told them that we had everything but we needed capital and lime miller to improve on our production,” Kawisi says.
The K12.6 million machine was installed in 2008 and they are still repaying the loan, albeit with struggles as their business is sinking.
In 2009, the Lirangwe Women Lime makers changed into Tithokoze Lime Cooperative to allow for the incorporation of men into their ranks.
However, today, out of a membership of 23 people, only five are men and women are holding all key positions except one of vice secretary which is held by a man.
Currently struggling with capital requirements, the women are facing problems to realise enough from their business.
Things have become so desperate that they are even struggling to meet basic household needs.
The members in the group are entrapped from one loan to the other as they seek ways to survive.
Kawisi says it is as if she has just woken up from a dream as she cannot believe that the once vibrant group is collapsing with each passing day.
By now she was at least supposed to have a decent home, she says, but now she cannot afford one.
The only noticeable thing is that she has a water pipe right at her house which also benefits the surrounding houses.
Even though her house has iron sheets, it is old and is in dire need of maintenance.
“I wish well-wishers could take an interest in developing rural poor women like us. I believe we can take part in the social economic development of this country,” she says.
In April, 2015, President of Malawi Women in Mining Association (Mawima) Emma Adam said mining is one of the mainstream economic activities in Africa and women who form a large section of the continent’s population should not be pushed to the periphery.
She pointed out that government and donors should support mining women to be entrepreneurs as most of them concentrate on small and medium businesses because of lack of information on mining.
Adam cited lack of readily available markets, capital deficiency, unavailability of proper mining machinery, difficulties in acquiring licences and raw deals offered by unscrupulous middlemen for their products as some of the challenges women like Kawisi are facing.
Kawisi and her colleagues might persist in their business. But without any solution to their current woes, their venture is well on its death bed – and with it, the death of women empowerment.
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