Who will save Malawian traders?

Lyton Mangochi, a small-scale businessperson at Karonga District Market, is dying for a saviour. He needs the saviour, now; or else, his world will crumble.

“We are falling; slowly, we are dying, facing deletion from business spaces. But who is going to save us?”

But where does his story begin?

Like many people across the country, Mangochi, after sitting his Malawi School Certificate of Education (MSCE) examinations, did not secure a place in the University of Malawi.

“My parents could not afford to send me to a private college. It was tough,” he says.

Searching for survival, he wobbled the streets of Malawi’s towns and cities, looking for employment. But without any skills, he could hardly find one.

He went back to his home district of Mangochi, quite a frustrated young man. That was in 1994.

In the same year, he left for Karonga to search for a fortune. And he found one.

“I sourced some capital and started selling fish. As years went by, my business grew to the extent of owning this shop today,” he says, pointing his shop perched inside the Karonga District Market.

It is a sizeable shop that stocks different lotions and ladies accessories of all kinds.

“All the needs of my life and family are met from the proceeds of the shop. It is almost the source of my daily survival,” continues Mangochi, who is married and has children.

It is because his business is the heart of survival that today he lives by complaining. He thinks his heart is leaving him.

“Doing business in Malawi is not rosy. It is even worse if you are operating a small business like me.

“We struggle to pay duty when crossing borders, rising transport costs, accessing bank loans and we also struggle to sell our goods, given the poor economic situation which has not spared consumers,” he says.

But despite these challenges, Mangochi has never felt as insecure his business as he does today, with the challenge the Chinese traders are posing to his business.

“We are being edged out of the market by the invasion of Chinese traders. They are offering low prices that we cannot compete with.

“We are only surviving by selling water or thobwa because people prefer to buy from the Chinese. We can’t support our families; we can’t repay the loans. Our businesses are falling, we are failing,” he laments.

Such laments are not just heard from Karonga. John Ajibu, 32, who sells some wares at Mangochi Boma Market, expressed similar concerns.

“I sell this pot at K600. If you just walk across the road and enter the Chinese shop, you will get the same at K350,” he says, adding: “It is not deliberate that I sell at K600. The cost of buying and transporting the goods is too high. You will be surprised that I only get K100 as profit. Now when customers leave me for a cheap Chinese pot, how is my business going to survive? How will I support my family?” he asks.

The question Ajibu asks can also be heard from local traders at Nkhata Bay Boma Market, Chikhwawa, and in several other district markets.

Inarguably, China is bringing irresistible—some say unfair—competition to a number of local businesses in the country. This is putting the future of local businesses at a serious risk of deletion.

There is no doubt that Mangochi and Ajibu’s businesses, though small, contribute to the economy. As such, anything that happens to them and any other informal traders would affect not only their livelihoods, but the economy at large.

Lewis Chiwalo, chairperson for the Economic Empowerment Action Group (EEAG), notes the Chinese problem calls for a quick intervention from authorities.

He argues that much as Malawi needs investments, it does not need one which displaces local economic initiatives.

“Malawi does not need more investments in trade. We already have enough traders. It needs more in the manufacturing sector to create jobs and generate forex. If there should be any on trade, then it should be in peculiar areas where competition is low.

“EEAG has always been advancing national economic opportunity for all. But we cannot begin to think about this if we do not consider local businesses first,” he says.

Interestingly, it is not just EEAG which comes out concerned about the problem of the Chinese trading in the districts. Government, too, is aware and concerned.

“We have not sat idle. Currently, the ministry is working on how best we can reallocate all foreign traders, not just the Chinese, from districts to designated cities and municipalities,” says Wiskes Mkombezi, spokesperson for the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

“Even in the designated cities and municipalities namely, Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu, Zomba, Luchenza and Kasungu, the foreign traders have designated places where they must trade. They are not supposed to be trading in sub-urban areas, but in the central business district,” he adds.

But the question is: If the ministry which is the business licensing authority in the country, advances that foreign traders have designated places to trade, how come they are found where they are not supposed to be?

“Sometimes there is a misunderstanding in certain districts on licensing. But we are working with different district commissioners and we hope the problem will be rectified. Soon, foreign traders will be trading in designated places,” says Mkombezi, who could not specify when the exercise will start.

The process, if enforced in time, will surely be the saviour Mangochi is dying for. But if bureaucracy delays it, Mangochi will end up crumbled and fallen, with nowhere to turn to for his daily bread.

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