The Road to Development

I got a great question last week from Ian Froude; I’ve been thinking about it all week and I want to share my insights with you. The question was “What are the major barriers to the development of the community in which you are living? OR if it is already on the road to development, what is fueling that?” My thoughts on this question are based on my own personal experiences in Thyolo and on discussions I’ve had with my host family and co-workers. My family might be a bit biased since they live here, but I did try to be objective.

I think as Westerners a lot of people have this idea that the majority of people in Africa are living in extreme poverty. While it’s true that many Africans are living in poverty, there are also lots of Africans, and in this case villages, that work very hard and are privileged to have opportunities to lift themselves from poverty. While I still see poverty in my village, I think that it is currently on the road to development. I currently live in a village called Nchima. It is basically an extended part of the Boma and it also includes a large tea estate.

What makes me believe that Nchima is on the road to development? First of all, it has the benefit of being located very close to the Boma. This means that Nchima is located within walking distance of the huge MSF (Doctors Without Borders) hospital and government offices located in the Boma. Being located near a hospital has the obvious advantages of lower death rates due to diseases such as malaria and means that farmers spend less time away from their farms due to illness. The hospital has also done a pretty good job of promoting proper breastfeeding and handwashing in the vicinity (but a very poor job of promoting the use of toilet paper).

Since I have arrived in Thyolo the two main roads through the Boma have been flattened out and paved, the underground water system has been upgraded, and a new (and much better) marketplace is being constructed. Every time I walk up the road I have to be careful not to fall into holes that are being dug or get run over by tractors and trucks. There are also people everywhere selling their goods and produce, running small businesses, and preparing for the rainy season which means the beginning of the farming season.

The construction and upgrades in Thyolo are being funded by the Malawian government. I asked Mr. Nzengo why the government was giving Thyolo so much attention but I couldn’t really nail down a real reason. Personally I think it’s due to the fact that the president is from Thyolo (or as they call him in Malawi, “his Excellency the President Ngwazi Professor Bingu wa Mutharika”). Another contributing factor could also be that Thyolo is one of the more densely populated districts in Malawi. It has more than 600 000 people and because it has so many expansive tea plantations there are a lot of people squished onto a small amount of land.

Another reason why I believe Thyolo is on the road to development is because there are lots of job opportunities here. First of all, there are always jobs available in tea plantations as tea pickers. While these jobs are grossly underpaid, if you have a bad season farming you can at least be guaranteed a job to tide you over until the next season (the average tea picker makes MK110 or $0.80CAD per day). Second of all, growing bananas can be pretty profitable in Thyolo. I’m not sure what conditions make Thyolo a great place to grow bananas, but many of the bananas you will find throughout Malawi came from Thyolo. Some farmers in villages will form co-operatives that work together to produce enough bananas so that they can hire a truck to take the bananas to Lilongwe (or other areas) where they can get more for their bananas.

Finally, one last piece of construction on the agenda for Thyolo is to upgrade the road that goes through southern Thyolo and on to Nsanje District, which is the most southern district in Malawi. Right now Thyolo has one main highway that goes from Blantyre to the Boma and then halfway through Thyolo and into the neighbouring District of Mulanje. In order to access Nsanje you must go back to Blantyre and come down through another district called Chikwawa. The main reason that upgrading the road to Nsanje will promote development is because Malawi has just opened an inland port in Nsanje that is located on the Shire River. The Shire River runs through Malawi and up to the Lake, the opening of this port will allow Malawi to connect to the Zambezi River and the Indian Ocean; this should supposedly lower the cost of imported goods such as fuel. I have my doubts that prices will actually go down in any way that will benefit the general public, but a new road should increase traffic through Thyolo.

While there’s lots of exciting things going on around Nchima right now, I do want to mention some of the things that may also be hindering development. First of all, as I mentioned before, Thyolo is a very densely populated District and most of the good farming land is taken over by huge tea estates. Thyolo is also very hilly which leaves countless farmers squished onto terrible plots of land such as along the hillside. My family currently owns about an acre of land but it is located about 5 kilometers away from where we live which makes it hard to visit. My family is currently paying someone else to maintain their land. I haven’t seen the land yet because we haven’t been doing any farming, but Mr. Nzengo has promised to take me there this month when he starts planting maize.

The climate in Thyolo has also been changing and many farmers in Southern Thyolo found themselves unable to harvest any maize (the staple crop) last year. Malawians depend on their farms to supply both food for their families and income during the dry season when no farming takes place. My co-workers have attributed some of the climate change to deforestation that has been happening on Thyolo Mountain.

Anyways, I realize my analysis has been a little more related to Thyolo in general as opposed to just Nchima, but I think it’s all relevant. One thing I’ve been thinking about lately with the farming season arriving is subsidies. The Malawian government has recently started giving farmers fertilizer subsidies to help improve their crop yield. In Canada we tend to look down on subsidies as a bad thing for developing countries (In EWB we do anyways), I’m curious what thoughts you guys have on developing countries jumping on the subsidy train. Do you think it’ll help even up the playing field a little bit, or are developing countries just following in our harmful policies? (My knowledge on how Canadian subsidies work is pretty limited as well, so I’d love for the chapter especially to do some research!)

Missing you all,

PS – Going on a Zambian safari this weekend!!! Very stoked about it! (After being in Malawi for 90 days on a visitor visa they make you leave the country and come back in)


3 thoughts on “The Road to Development

  1. Hey Maria! Super interesting write-up! 🙂 Hope you have a great time on that safari!

    Subsidies are a super interesting question. In the United States there’s pretty insane subsidies on some farm products (on the outputs, like guaranteed prices for crops, rather than inputs like fertilizer.) I think that’s partly why US rice is shipped everywhere as food aid – because farmers can still make a bunch of money farming it (because of the subsidies) even though there’s not that much demand for it in the States.
    In Canada I don’t think it’s quite that bad, but there are still subsidies I think on dairy products and some other things. Europe also has big subsidies on dairy products. It’s tricky because it can be a case where what’s best for say Canadian farmers (eg. more subsidies here) is worse for farmers overseas, and vice versa. Makes it controversial.

    In developing countries it’s a really interesting question; I think the hesitation towards them is if people become dependent on say fertilizer subsidies, and then one year the government suddenly can’t afford to provide them, it could end badly. Or that you’ll throw off the market or encourage farmers to grow a ton of one specific crop and then they won’t be able to sell it to anyone.
    But also, you could argue that the subsidies are compensating for other costs specific to farmers in developing countries (crazy transportation costs maybe, or less of a social safety net) that farmers in north america or europe don’t have to deal with. Like you said, leveling the playing field. I’m not exactly sure.

    Sorry for writing so much! 🙂 Procrastinating from a paper right now. Hope you’re doing great!

  2. Thanks Sean! This is super helpful to me and will aid me now when I start asking around about it. I was wondering about what subsidies were provided for because I did think it was for outputs, not inputs, which is different then what is being provided here in Malawi. I gather it’s providing subsidies on produce outputs that makes subsidies so harmful to developing countries.

    Right now the fertilizer subsidies do help rural farmers, however (I need to check) I believe the subsidies are focused most intently on maize, which is the staple crop here. If people do start producing a lot more maize it could unbalance the market, or it could allow families not to be hungry at the end of every dry season. It’s hard to say this early in since come farmers grow their crops to sell and others grow their crops to provide for their families.

    The whole fertilizer subsidy thing can be easily corrupted though. People have been caught selling fake coupons for fertilizer and sometimes government officials and people involved in distributing the fertilizer will take more fertilizer for themselves, meaning that the really poor farmers are still not receiving any aid for farming their crops.

    On a slightly separate note, the line ups to collect fertilizer are crazy long! Don was telling me about a women (I believe she must have been in Balaka) who died waiting in line, most likely of something that was offset by dehydration.
    Anyways, thanks for your thoughts!


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