Recently there have been suggestions to the effect that Malawi should go into barter arrangements to procure fuel, in light of the forex challenges the country is facing. Presumably quantities of agricultural or mineral products will be assembled with aim of finding an oil exporter who would be willing to get them in exchange for petroleum products.
This would, of course, require that the agricultural or mineral products be valued so that they can fetch the equivalent value’s worth of petroleum. How this was to be done was not explained.
Barter sounds like an archaic way of doing trade doesn’t it? But wait a minute, barter has its own advantages over trade conducted in a monetary economy. I will dwell on one of those advantages in this article.
Perhaps the obvious advantage is that engaging in barter will not be battered by problems of forex unavailability. Instead the items of exchange will be groundnuts, beans, soya, precious stones and similar raw commodities. These, especially the agricultural products, will always be available. The producers of these commodities would almost immediately go into scaled up production of the commodities the moment they learnt there was a high demand for them. Whether they would produce enough to buy the quantities of needed is a story for another day.
The second advantage, the one I will discuss in greater detail, is that the population would embrace production as the primary source of wealth. I stated in my previous article that production was the golden goose that laid the golden egg.
For barter to be possible, both the buyer and the seller must have physical goods to trade. Before we embraced the monetary economy in this country, barter was the form of economy within which people traded. Those who were good at producing mphasa (reed mats), for example, would exchange them for something else that they did not produce. Mats would fetch salt, or cloth or hoe handles or a whole host of other products.
Msyamboza of Chibanzi in Dowa, who I have extensively featured on this column in the past, used to be skilled in the production of a number of products. He was an excellent hunter, for example, and used to barter some of his game meat for other products that he was not in the habit of making. On one occasion he walked from Chibanzi (situated near what now is called Mponela) to Bandawe on the northern lake shore to hunt hippopotami. Somebody had told him that hippo were plantiful at Bandawe. Obviously the bulk of the hippo meat was meant for trade by barter. He was also a skillful mat maker and iron smelter.
While he was at Bandawe he sought an audience with the head of mission which had been established there, Dr. Robert Laws. Msyamboza requested Laws to establish a school in his own village at Chibanzi. Laws asked him to take his request to a missionary called Robert Blake who was running Kongwe Misssion, which was closer to Chibanzi than Bandawe was. On his return to Chibanzi, Msyamboza walked to Kongwe to meet Rev Robert Blake, who, like Laws, was astonished at this request as no local person had thus far presented a similar request to him.
Robert Blake granted Msyamboza’s request. Both a church and a school were established at Chibanzi in 1896. Robert Blake also gave his new friend some wheat seeds. Subsequent to that, Msyamboza became a serious farmer of wheat. A small portion of the wheat was for his own consumption but he sold the bulk of it. He traveled to places like Nkhotakota, Dedza, and sometimes crossed over in Mozambique to look for white people who would buy the commodity. As there was no legal tender in this country then, he most likely traded his wheat for other products.
When Professor Yusuf Juwayeyi recently excavated Mankhamba, the headquarters of the Maravi Empire, he came across a staggering number of historical artifacts. Some were locally made ones while others were clearly from external sources. It was evident that the Amaravi traded with other people from near and far. Pieces of Chinese porcelain were discovered during the excavation, indicating that China was among the Amaravi’s trading partners. The Amaravi did not live in a monetary system, and so their trade must have been barter trade.
Obviously we cannot go back to fully fledged barter trade now. We would not have the patience to conduct that kind of trade in this fast paced world. But barter’s characteristic of requiring people to produce something in order to trade it with another should not be lost to us.