Revive import substitution


alawi used to have an import substitution policy which encouraged local buyers to prefer local sourcing of goods to importing, where possible. The idea was to reserve our foreign exchange reserves for critical imports like petroleum and fertiliser.

Over the years, we have seen “Import Substitution” eroding significantly as individuals and organisations imported all manner of goods willy-nilly—even bricks.

Malawians have an insatiable appetite for exotic goods and will stop at nothing to source items of whatever description from abroad.

Rather than feeling ashamed of purchasing clothing items in the US, (while similar items could be purchased locally), they openly brag about it.

One gentleman once travelled to the US and bought several things there, including a white shirt. On his return home, he began to show off his American shirt, but somebody recognised it as a Robin Bridge. There used to be a clothing factory in Limbe, Blantyre, that manufactured this brand for export.

Import Substitution used to encourage manufacturers to locally make things that would otherwise have to be sourced abroad.

We have had things like radios, batteries, clothes, cigarettes, soaps, cooking pots and dinner plates locally made for the local market.

Admarc’s Canning Factory was established in Mulanje to can fruit products, including jams, from locally grown fruit. These used to be sold primarily to the local consumers as a substitute for similar imports.

In primary school, we read Timve and Tsala for English and books authored by G. E. Michongwe and by John Wilson Gwengwe for Chichewa. All these books were printed locally.

Today, our national pride eludes us: we are very glad to travel abroad to purchase things that we can source locally.

Our supermarkets are well stocked but almost all the goods on display are foreign.

Some of our policies actually do very little to aid import substitution. I have lamented before the lack of uniformity in the application of import duty on books and paper.

If I import books today, they will land here duty-free. However, if I import paper and other printing sundries, I will be required to pay duty, making local production of books uncompetitive.

To level the playing field, both books and raw paper need to be exempted from duty or both have to be dutiable.

Meanwhile, interesting developments have taken place in terms of local printers developing their capacity for local book production.

It was once upon a time difficult to produce books in large volumes, what with the swelling numbers of pupils in our schools. The printing and binding equipment in the country could not handle the volumes that book buyers wanted. As a result printing of educational books used to be done in Canada, US, India, South Africa and other developed countries.

Now, the fortunes for book production have tipped in favour of local manufacturing, certainly insofar as production capacity is concerned.

Some local printers have transformed beyond recognition. They can do whatever a printer from India or Canada can do.

I have seen five colour and 10 colour presses, the latter capable of printing book sections in full colour on both sides in the same pass.

In layman’s language this means the staggeringly large volumes of books (and indeed other literature) can be printed in a short time.

I have also seen state of the art binding equipment, installed and looking hungry for books.

We need to go back to the policy of import substitution for this country’s development to inch forward. If we cannot achieve this in the manufacturing of other products, we certainly can achieve it in book production.

It is not necessary anymore to rush to India and other countries to get large volumes of books produced. n


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