MALAWI: ‘It is tough, but we are forging ahead’
Thomas Cromwell

Malawi is a small, land-locked country in southeast Africa that is blessed with abundant water supplies. Running the length of much of the country is Lake Malawi (formerly Lake Nyasa), it is Africa’s third largest fresh water lake, after Victoria and Tanganyika, and is populated with more than 1000 species of fish. All three of these Great Lakes of Africa lie in the Great Rift Valley which runs north to Ethiopia and the Red Sea, and south to Mozambique and the Indian Ocean. Lake Malawi is drained into the Indian Ocean by the Shire and Zambezi rivers.

Long held back in development by three decades of autocratic, one-party rule under Dr. Hastings Kamuzu Banda, Malawi’s first president after independence from Britain in 1964, the country is on the development train through efforts to improve its agricultural output and overall infrastructure, and through nurturing a free market economy, clamping down on corruption and encouraging foreign investment and trade.

Like so many African countries, Malawi has the additional burden of a sizeable portion of its population suffering from HIV/AIDS, as an estimated 14 percent of the 12.5 million population is infected.

In a recent interview with DiplomaticTraffic.com, Malawi’s ambassador to Washington DC, Hawa Ndilowe, discussed the anti-corruption campaign in her country, as well as Malawi’s agenda for development.

Speaking of the government’s anti-corruption drive, she said, “We have great support from the public,” noting that a 2005 survey showed some 75 percent of the people support the effort.

The government is pushing this cause by prosecuting officials caught in corrupt practices, and also by working with the business community, which has formed a coalition against corruption and adopted a code of conduct for private companies to follow.

The ambassador noted that as a result of the anti-corruption drive, from 2004/5 to 2006 some 500 cases of corruption were targeted for investigation. Of these, 120 investigations were completed. And of 45 cases brought in court, 24 led to convictions.

“It is tough, but we are forging ahead,” the ambassador said.

One fruit of this effort was the Millennium Challenge Corporation in 2005 giving Malawi a $20.9 million grant under its Threshold Program to strengthen the country’s fiscal management and anti-corruption efforts. The next stage of MCC grant-giving will be decided in December this year.

With 85 percent of the population living in rural areas and dependent on subsistence farming, any development strategy has to include agricultural development. Ambassador Ndilowe pointed out that “improving agriculture is our number one priority.”

She said that Malawi’s focus on agricultural production and development of agro-industries has born fruit over the past two years. She said Malawi has enough food in its resrves and has even donated some to neighboring countries.

Among other exports are tobacco (the main export earner), cotton, groundnuts, macademia nuts, coffee, tea and sugar. Malawi wants to do more agro-processing and to reap the benefits of exporting value-added products (rather than just primary agricultural produce).

To help get the engine of rural growth started, three sites have been targeted for intensive development, with the support of several development partners, including the Clinton-Hunter Development Initiative (supported by the William J Clinton Foundation and the Hunter Foundation.

The CHDI works with the Malawi government on the following:

    * Improve farmers’ productivity by expanding their access to fertilizer, disease-resistant seeds, irrigation systems, advanced planting techniques, and micro-credit;
    * Cultivate domestic and international markets for agriculture produce;
    * Help develop value-added agricultural products;
    * Address transportation costs and other impediments to cost-effective trade;
    * Expand access to clean water and sanitation, particularly in health facilities and schools; and
    * Strengthen rural hospitals and health clinics.

Ambassador Ndilowe said the program is working well, and Malawi is expanding it to other areas.

Another interesting project is the Millennium Village program run by the Millennium Promise and other organizations, including CareerBuilders.com, which is helping a particular village in Malawi with its development. The Millennium Promise initiative was set up by Jeffrey Sachs to help achieve the UN’s Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2025.

The agricultural initiative is part of a wider Malawi Growth and Development Strategy adopted last year. The basic thrust of this is to overcome poverty through sustainable economic growth and infrastructure development, fueled by private sector development.

This translates into policies that encourage more exporting than importing, and more producing than consuming. It also focuses on achieving good governance, a stable political environment, prudent financial and fiscal management, and stable exchange rates.

Practically, the government also wants to improve agricultural production by improving access to farm inputs and extension services, expanding irrigation schemes, diversifying crops and developing marketing infrastructure.

The Government has also given priority to improving its transport infrastructure. A major project is dredging the Shire River to reopen a 238 kilometer commercial river passage through Mozambique to the Indian Ocean. This project is actively supported by COMESA, the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa, as well as SADC and NEPAD, as it will serve several countries in the area, including Zambia and Mozambique. The scheme also involves improving rail networks in the region.

When completed, this project will result in the dramatic reduction of transport costs for imports and exports for Malawi and the neighboring countries.

Lake Malawi covers one fifth of the country’s surface, and offers a rich source of wealth for both fishing industries and tourism. “We would like to export a lot more fish”, the ambassador said. The lake is also home to ornamental fish, which are exported. “We would also like to develop more attractive tourism facilities around the lake,” she said.

Some 400,000 tourists visit Malawi each year, most heading to the lake and five national parks and game preserves. The number of tourists is steadily increasing, bringing in much-needed hard currency.

To push along its development agenda, Malawi is seeking private investment in everything from agro-industries and forestry (including rubber plantations) to mining (uranium, bauxite and gem stones) and tourism.

The country’s credit rating has improved, and currently stands at B-, with AAA the target. “A lot more people and partners have confidence in Malawi,” the ambassador said.

Ambassador Ndilowe appreciates the support from the US government to her country through a range of programs. These include projects in education, health (including HIV/AIDS and malaria programs), the Millennium Challenge Corporation and AGOA (the African Growth and Opportunity Act).