Show me your product

I recently came across a lady venting out her frustration over the lack of durability of a pair of shoes she had recently purchased. She was quick to brand the shoes Chinese. This, at any rate, is a consistent attitude in Malawi, where anything perceived to be less than durable is called Chinese.

What intrigued me is that although this lady—and indeed many Malawians—ridiculed the supposed Chinese product, she, more likely than not, did not have anything that she could have shown as her own product, made by herself or her colleagues.

We continue to scorn other people’s products, forgetting that at least those people have made a start while we still produce next to nothing. When the Tata vehicles first appeared in this country, many people derided the “obviously inferior” Indian product. Today, several years later, Tata has been improved greatly while we still have not made one vehicle since. I am aware that in the 1970s, Malawi did experiment with car assembly, making a handful of vehicles that were branded Zonse, but that project did not continue.

Malawians lack product patriotism, I mean that kind of patriotism that makes you turn a blind eye to minor defects a local product may have and still prefer it to a foreign substitute.

The only way the quality of local products will improve is if we buy them, or at least show the willingness and readiness to buy. That way, we will create a market for the products in question, and in time many players will become producers. With many producers and many buyers, market forces will be unleashed and those producing inferior products will eventually leave the scene. It will, of course, require substantial sacrifice on the part of the consumer for that to happen. Buyers will initially have to put up with low quality and high price, as it will take time for the proper price-quality equilibrium to be reached.

Malawians lack that kind of patience. They would rather jump onto the next plane to China or Dubai and bring container loads of merchandise. If the containers they bring contain items such as floor tiles, Jacuzzis or anything that is not locally made, that may probably be pardonable. But I have no kind words for people that bring container loads of furniture or curtains, as these items are made or can easily be made locally.

Malawi has a rich tradition of production, from its past. The Malawian of the 17th and 18th centuries was a smelter of iron, which used to be fashioned into all kinds of implements. In fact, one school of thought holds that the name Malawi was derived from the many iron smelting kilns that were all over the place, lighting up the landscape, in those days. I have great respect for people like the original Chikulamayembe of Rumphi, who was a producer of hoes en masse, thereby enabling his subjects to engage in organised agriculture.

In my last article, I attempted to describe, albeit briefly, the life and work of a 19th century enterprising chief from Dowa, called Msyamboza. He was a hunter and an agriculturist, a school planter and a preacher, all rolled into one. The reader may find it hard to believe but Msyamboza grew wheat, from which he baked bread at Chibanzi. He also grew castle oil, and extracted oil from its seeds. The people of Chibanzi were introduced to the luxury of anointing their bodies with oil in the 19th century. Some of the oil was used to produce soap.

Chikulamayembe or Msyamboza would probably have the credentials to ridicule the products of other people, but I would not take it if it came, like it so often does, from the average Malawian of today. They would have to first show me their own products before I could take such ridicule seriously. The point is that while we are busy yawning and scratching ourselves and bursting into uncontrollable mirth on account of short-lived Chinese products, China itself is steadily inching towards super power status, courtesy of its production.

China may not necessarily possess heavy deposits of gold or diamonds, but it has developed and nurtured a culture that respects local production. Somebody said “production is the goose that laid the golden egg”. We badly need that golden egg in Malawi. We shall not get it by subjecting other people’s products to senseless derision.–The author is a printing service provider and social commentator.

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