Malawi

Malawi artisans frustrated with government plan to help small manufacturers

Furniture maker Luke Stephano says that Malawi consumers don't trust their standard of work, and government plans to promote it haven't been forthcoming.
Furniture maker Luke Stephano says that Malawi consumers don't trust their standard of work, and government plans to promote it haven't been forthcoming. © RFI/Benson Kunchezera

In an effort to help local artisans and small manufacturers, the Malawian government this year rolled out a new system to eliminate middlemen and break into the international market. But some in Blantyre feel that they have been left out of the government plan.

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"We face a lot of challenges, one of them being that people do not trust that we can make high standard products. They end up buying imported products from other countries instead of supporting us,'' said Luke Stephano, a furniture maker from Traditional Authority Kapeni in Blantyre, Malawi’s commercial hub.

The Malawi government restructured three government systems which also directed government agencies to give preference to buying locally made goods under the established Buy Malawi project.

"I have personally seen the great work done by local artisans in the country producing everything from office furniture to building fixtures, and yet the young people who do such great work are never given a chance. I am here to change all that," said President Lazarus Chakwera in March.

He indicated that contracts from various government agencies land in the hands of a few people while others are not given an opportunity to grow.

As a consequence, middle men - people who speculate in commodities by buying them at a low price in order to re-sell them at a higher price to willing buyers - make profits at the workers’ expense.

If artisans are empowered they will have money in their pockets thereby increasing products which can also be exported outside the country, according to Chakwera.

Artisans try to cope

Artisans have had to deal with Covid-19 and have not felt supported by the government, even after the announcement, Stephano told the Africa Calling podcast.

"As you can see I'm here waiting for customers to buy, business is not good as it used to be in the past,” says Stephano. “The Covid-19 pandemic hit us hard.”

Lack of sales directly affects his work and his family too.

"I have to pay rent for this shop and my house, as well as buying food to take care of my children back home," Stephano lamented.

Fellow artisans at Kamkwamba shop in Blantyre, are busy making metal door frames and window frames of different shapes, but business remains slow.

In places like Ndirande, Kamba and Zingwangwa, well known for their artisans in furniture, welding, business is not great, says Gift Kamkwamba, the owner of the Gift Kamkwamba work shop. He dismissed comments that they do not make reliable and efficient products to be fully trusted.

Gift Kamkwamba makes metal windowframes at his shop in Blantyre, Malawi, while workers look on
Gift Kamkwamba makes metal windowframes at his shop in Blantyre, Malawi, while workers look on © RFI/Benson Kunchezera

"Quality-wise, that is not an issue since we are offering same brand as those products sold in big shops,'' he said.

More promotion needed

There has not been enough effort made by the Malawian Small and Medium Enterprises themselves, according to economist Betchani Tcheleni.

"Everything is coming from elsewhere. They haven't done a lot in terms of furniture, for example,” said Tcheleni, of the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences.

“The manufacturing industry is not doing enough to make goods and services available for Malawian consumers to buy," Tcheleni added.

Covid-19 has also forced artisans to scale back production and work force, but he adds that the high cost of materials is affecting businesses, particularly as there have been steep recent price hikes.

Schoolchildren pass in front of Gift Kamkwamba's metal doorframe shop in Blantyre, Malawi
Schoolchildren pass in front of Gift Kamkwamba's metal doorframe shop in Blantyre, Malawi © RFI/Benson Kunchezera

Perhaps artisans have not applied themselves to the Buy Malawi strategy because they are unaware of it. When asked whether he participated in the scheme, shop owner Rashid Gondwa, 27, shrugged.

"I heard a rumour about this but I'm not sure if the project is now being implemented because I haven't seen changes yet,'' said Gondwa.

According to Malawi’s ministry of industry and trade, the government is cooperating with local artisans, including those who sell their handmade goods outside the country.

"We are ready to support them. What they need to do is register at our secretariat offices under the 'Buy Malawi' project," said ministry spokesman Mayeso Msokera, adding that about 70 artisans had already registered.

Frustrated artisans hope that their luck will change or that the government will be more willing to support their crafts.

Outside Luke Stephano's furniture shop in Blantyre, Malawi
Outside Luke Stephano's furniture shop in Blantyre, Malawi © RFI/Benson Kunchezera

"Our appeal should go to the authorities to support the industry by giving us contracts from the government in order to help one another as Malawians,” said doorframe manufacturer Kamkwamba.

“If continues like this, our lives will never change," he added.

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