The Way Forward for Recycling in Malawi

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As a relative newcomer to working in Africa, one of the things I find most surprising when I am in rural areas in Malawi is the omnipresence of trash. It’s a testament to the power of private sector distribution systems that in villages hundreds of kilometers from Malawi’s urban centers you can find chip bags on the ground. Waste management is a challenge that will only accelerate in densely populated Malawi as the population continues to grow and as, we hope, the population becomes wealthier and has more access to commercial goods.

An innovative local business has the potential to help improve the waste management system in Malawi by introducing recycling. The entrepreneur behind Dynamic Recycling Malawi, Ltd, Lucas Phekani, calls waste paper “gold.” He can’t get his hands on enough of it, and in fact sourcing enough waste paper is a challenge for the company to overcome as it grows. The company takes paper-based trash and processes it into egg trays, which it sells to most of the large Malawian egg businesses. The paper waste could also be used to manufacture other packaging goods and this is something Lucas has in mind for the future. The Business Innovation Facility, a project I work with here in Malawi, is pitching in to help Dynamic Recycling Malawi grow by writing a business plan to help attract investors, conducting market research to scope products and customers, and researching options for sourcing more waste paper. One idea the team is kicking around for sourcing more paper involves partnering with a local NGO to involve low-income women in the paper gathering as an income-generating scheme.

Local manufacturing benefits not just the economy but also the environment in a small, landlocked country like Malawi. Without Dynamic Recycling, egg producers would either have to import all of their egg boxes from South Africa (or from further a field) or invest in egg tray production themselves. Local production creates jobs right here in Malawi and saves on transport and associated fuel. A further benefit to utilising waste paper for recycling is that it would often otherwise be burned, emitting carbon dioxide and polluting the air. Even major financial institutions in Malawi lack the means to properly dispose of their paper waste, so they burn about 70% of it. If Dynamic Recycling Malawi can get access to this paper, they will be able to scale up production and reduce emissions. 

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Dynamic Recycling is not alone in seeing the value in trash. Plastics manufacturers in Malawi are also looking into recycling; in the long-term it may be less expensive to recycle local plastics than to import fresh plastic pellets from abroad. Carlsberg already runs an effective glass-recycling program with products including Coca-Cola, which may prove to be a helpful model.

Local authorities in Malawi who manage municipal waste do not have the funds to initiate a recycling campaign; they believe that this is a void the private sector can and will fill. And they may be right. If the companies that can benefit from recycling collaborate to build awareness about the value of trash, and establish a supply chain, companies like Dynamic Recycling and plastics manufacturers stand to benefit, as does the country’s fragile environment.

This post was originally published at the Practitioner Hub for the Business Innovation Facility

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Tablet Cafes in Dakar

The first tablet cafe in the world just opened its doors in…not New York, Oslo, or Shanghai, but Dakar. The cafe provides low-cost internet access to the Dakarois (it costs about $.60 for an hour of access) in a format that is amenable to the frequent power outages that plague Senegal’s rapidly growing capital. Smart. The business relies on tablets with long battery lives and the indefatigable power of 3G, which believe it or not, works even in the remotest of wildlife reserves in Malawi. The cafe is also bringing down its own costs by decreasing energy consumption. 

(Aside: In time, a new idea out of one of Nairobi’s many tech-start ups may help this cafe run on wifi and bring down 3G costs as well. The concept is an Africa-friendly modem, with a battery built-in and the ability to switch between wifi and 3G when a fixed-line network fails.)

As Africa’s middle class continues to grow at a dizzying clip and cities like Dakar go from quaint colonial capitals to crowded urban centers, the continent’s relationship with technology is moving from One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) disasters to the latest Huawei Androids running on 3G, designed with African markets in mind. The driving factor in the tech revolution in Africa today is not donor money, but private investment and interest. 

This tablet cafe in Dakar opened its doors with funding from Google. It is part of Google’s move to expand internet access across the region. In this particular case, Google hopes to help make it more profitable for a business to offer affordable internet access by providing the capital for tablets that will lower electricity bills in the long-run. Additionally, Google hopes that the technological newcomer will find the tablet interface more user-friendly than a standard PC, and therefore return to the web more regularly. 

Here is Google’s strategy in the sub-Saharan region:

The Internet is a powerful source of information. Google’s strategy in Africa is to get more users online by developing an accessible, relevant and sustainable internet ecosystem.

  • Reducing access as a barrier to all potential users

  • Making the Internet relevant and useful to Africans

  • Helping strengthen an Internet ecosystem in Africa that is vibrant, and sustainable and self-sufficient in the long-term

Google’s effort to expand internet access in Africa strikes me as an ideal case of public and private needs lining up. As Google works to bring more people online, they open new markets to their advertising and products. On the public good side, it is true that this kind of investment helps only those who have already been educated and are earning enough to afford sophisticated phones and internet access–and to read what they can access with these tools, for that matter. However, seeing a private company work to expand internet access in Africa is encouraging. Even if this internet access doesn’t reach the same remote village in Rwanda where 1,000 OLPCs are rusting in a classroom without electricity, giving the middle and upper classes more opportunities to get online leads to more open societies, better news coverage, and with time, the kind of government accountability and informed public that so many countries sorely need. 

I recognize the irony in writing about the expansion of internet access in Africa from a country where 93 percent of the population doesn’t have access to the power grid. Which is by way of saying, we have a long way to go between the haves and the have-nots in the African tech world. Here’s hoping that we see a tablet cafe in Blantyre, Malawi soon, and hopefully with the same great sweet tea and croissants found in Dakar. 

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World Day Against Child Labor

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Tea fields in Malawi’s Thyolo District.

On drives through Malawi’s lush tea-growing region, I am regularly reminded that I am in a “child labour free zone” by concrete billboards. The signs, dotting the evergreen fields in Thyolo and Mulanje districts, are sponsored by the Tea Association of Malawi, which organizes the handful of tea producers in the country. The Tea Association helps ensure that Malawi’s tea companies, from the family-owned to the multi-national, keep a good name for the industry. For an agribusiness company operating in the developing world today, keeping a good name requires vigilant attention to child labor laws and trends in international advocacy. 

Tea is one of Malawi’s most important exports, and the small southern African country ranks as the second largest producer of tea in Africa behind Kenya. The industry is the largest formal employer in Malawi, with about 60,000 working on the estates (company-owned farms), and about one million people across the country benefitting from the industry. That means that one in every 16 Malawians relies on tea in some way to survive. The tea estates employ thousands of unskilled workers to pick tea and perform other agricultural tasks. They also buy tea from small farmers who own nearby plots, and process that tea along with their own for export.  

About ten years ago, international organizations, including the International Labor Organization, the Eye of the Child, and UNICEF, reported on the prevalence of child labor in the company-owned tea fields in Malawi. The latest national statistics date from 2004 and report that almost 36 percent of kids in Malawi under the age of 14 work. There is limited data on the situation in the tea sector more specifically, even after an international campaign on the issue. Getting reliable information on a sensitive problem in a remote area is a real challenge. The best survey on the issue, conducted in 2003, relied primarily on interviews. It concluded that “the general opinion seems to be that child labour is rampant also in the tea sector in Malawi, especially during peak season.” More accurate data would require extensive fieldwork run by local survey teams with the ability to establish trust and spend concentrated time in the communities. 

The bad press of the anti-child labor campaign prompted policy changes both on the part of the Government of Malawi and the corporations working in the tea sector. I imagine the tea companies want to hire only those over the age of 21 or 18, but doing so is a logistical challenge in a country without a national identification system. Many people in rural areas are not sure of their ages themselves. To address the issue, most companies ask new hires to sign a contract verifying that they are over the age of 18. Some hiring managers also try to eyeball candidates, and turn away any applicants who look younger than 21–just in case. The official working age in Malawi is 14, but for tasks that are defined as “the worst kinds of child labour,” the age is 18. Tea work is not included among the “worst kinds,” which are limited to those that can harm the worker’s health or expose the worker to what is considered to be dangerous behavior. 

As I have spent time in the tea industry, meeting with hired labor on the estates as well as with the small farmers around them, kids have been a regular part of my days, as anywhere else in Malawi. Babies are on their mothers’ backs as they work in the fields, kids hang out with their older siblings at meetings with small farmers, and girls walking home from school wave at me and try out their English to say a warm hello. It’s no surprise that kids are part of the fabric of my days in the tea region. Kids–specifically those under the age of 14–make up about 45% of the country’s population. About one million of them are orphans. The HIV/AIDS rate in the country is one in 11. The life expectancy is 53, which means that the 18 year olds who are able to work for the first time are about a third of the way through the lives they can expect to live. 

Given that context and the stark realities they represent, I wonder about what happens to the 16 year old kid who can’t get a job making minimum wage on a tea estate. Does he go back to school? I’d like to think so, but if he left school in the first place to work, doesn’t he need to earn money? Would he even have the cash to pay school fees? Does he need to earn to support his younger siblings? If this individual has other pressing needs that are putting him in the position of working in tea fields at the age of 16, where is he going to go when he is turned out of those fields by a well-meaning international advocacy movement? Likely, he’ll work informally, earning less than minimum wage, for a wealthier member of his community who owns some land. Or perhaps he’ll try and get work on the nearby mountain as a guide, or maybe even if he has a loan from a microfinance bank, he’ll buy a bike a run a bike taxi business. But I doubt that this 16 year old gets to go back to school or to do any of the other things that kids do in an ideal world. He came to the tea fields to earn money, and I bet he’ll keep trying, one way or another.

There is a chasm between the ideas about what kids deserve and usually can expect in a developed country, and the reality of life in a country like Malawi. I think that the international organizations working on this issue try to do the right thing, but the “right thing” is a complex and sometimes elusive solution. The companies are also trying to do right by both their investors and the communities. I agree that kids shouldn’t have to work, but if they are not able to work, not able to learn, and need money to eat, what should they do? 

Today is World Day Against Child Labor. The organizations that work in this space will use today, and the countless statistics and heartbreaking stories surrounding this issue, to raise funds and awareness to keep kids out of the workplace. My hope is that as advocacy on issues around child labor in developing countries continues, as it should, it is coupled with extensive research and the development of sustainable programs for those people under the age of 18 who do sorely need work, and lack other options. 

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Good Read on Kenya, Kenyatta, and the ICC

A piece in yesterday’s Guardian from prominent Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina is well worth a read. His ultimate point is that Kenyatta is the candidate for peace and security within Kenya, which is the reality Kenyans are invested in right now. He has strong words for the ICC and the international community’s interference more broadly.

Memorable excerpts for the cliff notes version:

We fully intend to co-operate with the ICC: we opted in, and we will see it through. But I and many others no longer have any serious moral investment in its progress as an institution. I propose they go and build their court properly, and then come back and talk to us when it is grown up, when there are a few convictions of people who are not Africans. Kenya is a real place, with real politics.

I have heard this sentiment in conversations with friends repeatedly over the past few weeks in Malawi, as well as during my visits to Uganda and Rwanda. Many educated Africans are tired of seeing the ICC bring repeated cases against African leaders, cases which are at best ineffectual, and at worst incendiary. I’ve even heard friends say that they will support Kenyatta just because he has the ICC indictment standing against them. Hearing all this makes it hard to understand the ICC’s logic in indicting Kenyatta and Ruto at all, or at least indicting those two and leaving Odinga out of the fray. It seems to me that the ICC went a long way to undermining its own credibility in this case.

My favorite excerpt:

We are not, and have never been, a CNN African country, held together by western pins and glue, pity, bananas and paternal concern.

“African solutions to African problems” is a favorite catchphrase in Washington and in capitals across the continent. It is exciting to see Kenya asserting its commitment to making the catchphrase matter.

And all ideologies aside, it is a relief for everyone in this corner of the world to see the election in Kenya violence-free so far. On a practical note, more fighting there would spike prices on consumer goods across the region where we rely on the Mombasa port for imports and exports. It would also dim investment prospects in the East African community should the region’s brightest star prove unable to generate its own solutions to its ethnic and electoral tensions.

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The True Size of Africa

The True Size of Africa

I first saw this map with friends at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York and loved it for what it taught me about the real size of the continent. To see that the United States accounted for West Africa alone astounded me. I remember being equally shocked when I flew over here to learn from the plane’s captain that I had as far to go from New York to Dakar as I did from Dakar to Johannesburg.

Along with Africa’s huge size, the second largest continent on earth behind Asia, comes an incredible diversity. The climates, crops, foods, cultures, economies, and of course languages, vary greatly between the regions. As I spend more time working in Malawi, I am finding that interacting with those outside Malawi in a professional setting takes some negotiation. This is because even counterparts who have spent their careers in Africa may not have worked in Malawi specifically, and each country has its own specific context and way of doing things.

Even within a nation, African states boast a formidable diversity. Over 500 languages are spoken in a giant nation like Nigeria. Even in a small country like Malawi the people speak about 16 different languages, depending on who you ask.

This map helps break down the idea that Africa is one big poor country with lots of guns and sad-looking children. It isn’t. I hope that as Africa gains influence and relevance to the West in the coming years that our governments will learn to take the nuanced approach that each region and nation deserves, rather than reducing an overwhelming diversity of peoples, economies, and states to one undersold monolith.

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Presidential Jet for Sale

The welcoming parting receiving President Joyce Banda in Lilongwe as she deplaned a commercial flight from Johannesburg in October.

Good news for corporate executives looking for a bargain on a 1998 Dassault Falcon 900EX. You can have former Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika’s for just $13.3 million.

When Joyce Banda came to power in April after Bingu’s death, international observers were thrilled to learn that Africa’s second female president planned to be a frugalista. Banda told the Nyasa Times a few weeks after coming to power that she was open to selling the plane. Memorably, the former businesswoman and activist quipped: “I am already used to hitchhiking.” 

When Bingu bought the plane five years ago for $22.4 million, he told concerned observers and voters that it would be “cheap to run.”  Cheap came to about $300,000 a year–a huge sum in a country where the per capita income tops out at about $900 per annum. Britain punished Malawi for Bingu’s excesses by cutting aid by $4.4 million. The international community took the splurge as a telltale sign that the former World Bank economist was loosening his tether to the reality of the everyday in Malawi.

While the sale is a sign of good faith on Banda’s part, it’s hard to imagine that the revenue will make a dent in state finances. Malawi has a budget for 2012-2013 of $1.6 billion, most of which is financed by donations. $13.3 million is just a small slice of that pie. The president still incurs her fair share of costs, sparking the wrath of protesters a few weeks ago in the streets of Blantyre and Mzuzu. She does travel commercially, and has since she took office. I can vouch for this because Banda and her entourage filled the first class section of the plane on my October flight from Johannesburg. The fleet of luxury cars remains, as does the public upset when she sends them across the country ahead of her, flying over the line of black Mercedes to make up the time.

Perhaps this disconnect between the governing and the governed is inevitable in a place like Malawi where the minimum wage is now less than a dollar a day, much of the agrarian nation is hard-hit by drought, and the average Malawian will never dream of flying on a commercial jet, much less a private one. At the very least, for now, its refreshing to see a leader here come good on her promise. 

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On Violence in Congo

Jeffrey Gettleman has a piece in the New York Times Sunday Review on Congo. His writing is crisp as ever and the details are haunting. He provides useful background on the enormously complex country, including a bit of insight on the role of Rwanda in the conflict.

What I find most striking about his reporting is the description of the systemic violence Congo is famous for. Each news article I read about the country’s horrors bring more tales so awful that they are almost unbelievable.

The most striking anecdote was not the most gruesome of Gettleman’s coverage. Instead, it was this one:

One of the most frightening things I’ve ever witnessed — was watching a mob of furious voters attack a poll worker, slugging him in the face until he toppled to the ground and then stomping on his rib cage until I’m sure he died.

What strikes me about this story is that these voters are “regular” people. Not battle-scarred rebels who have been living in the bush for years, or soldiers whose conscience has been scabbed over by years of neglect from the government and watching comrades die in horrifying ways. Instead, these are everyday citizens, incensed at the miscarriage of justice and democracy in their country. Their response? Violence, with whatever tools at their disposal.

My wonder is about the kind of long-term conditioning violence brings to a people, and how they recover from it and create a peaceful society. When children have been raised in an environment where they are not safe in their own homes, and see gratuitous violence around them, how can even well-meaning parents instill a sense of right and wrong? How can Congo bring up a generation of peace-loving people in the context of endless war?

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Malawi to see $1B railroad built through country by Brazilian mining company Vale

I love seeing Malawi’s big news get play in a major newspaper at home. Although these plans have been in the works for months, it’s great to hear that they are set in stone. Not only will a railroad make Mozambican vacations easier, but a railroad to Beira will dramatically reduce export costs for many of the businesses we work with, helping tip the scales in favor of investing in new Malawian exporters.

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December 6, 2012 · 3:49 pm

Inequality and African Futures

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Sunrise over Lake Malawi.

Simon Freemantle, an Africa analyst with Standard Bank, wrote into “African Arguments” about the binary views the international community seems to favor when it comes to Africa. On “Africa in Transition,” John Campbell responded with an echo of Freemantle’s plea to see Africa as its component parts. The continent is either “rising,” the great economic miracle of the 21st century, or it is “hopeless,” entirely reliant on foreign aid and intervention to stem disease, starvation, and war. As Freemantle explains, not only are both these attitudes incorrect, but furthermore, this analytical framework is dangerously simplistic.

Perhaps most critical is the necessity to craft more inclusive and equitably distributed growth. The gulf in income across Africa is becoming more pronounced, and the socio-economic responsibilities, let alone threats, that this gives rise to must be a central feature of future plans. While North Africa’s “Arab Spring” will not systemically spread south, political systems will have to become more nimble to negotiate the demands of an increasingly youthful, urbanised and connected populace. The risks, both foreseeable and unknown, that accompany these inevitable shifts may not detract from Africa’s allure, but they certainly imply that a more nuanced and critical approach to the continent is necessary.

Inequality within African countries has been on my mind frequently since I arrived in Malawi, and it is something I wonder about frequently when considering development more broadly. Living as an expatriate in Blantyre, the income inequalities are stark and obvious on a daily basis. I have been surprised to find that you can find most things in Malawi–so long as you can pay for it. The great global economic machine gets me balsamic vinegar, reportedly of Modena, in the supermarket here, and yet friends who work at the hospital tell me that the infant ventilators no longer work because the hospital cannot get the right parts from South Africa.

More broadly, however, the question of inequality and development should sit centrally in thinking and talking about Africa’s future. After all, seven out the world’s ten fastest growing economies are located in this part of the world. I was astounded to learn that one of the world’s five most expensive cities is in Africa–it’s Luanda, the capital of Angola. As economic growth continues to sputter in the developed world, Africa’s booming population and growing middle class, resources, and seemingly untapped potential are bound to lure investment and hope. That said, if we look at growth with a development or national security perspective, the question is not gross national economic growth rate, but rather whether the welfare of the average person improves. Unfortunately, the indicators from some of Africa’s current “tigers” do not look good.

Next door, Mozambique is part of the clique of African nations on the move with a +6 percent annual growth rate. The excitement about Mozambique’s bright future, fueled (literally) by coal and gas deposits, spills over even into resource poor Malawi with rumors about new railroads and Brazilian investments. Tete, a coal mining city just a few hours from Blantyre, is awash with Brazilian businessmen and growing at an impressive clip. It is easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm about this growth from even where I sit. Every other business owner I talk to is excited about the possibility of infrastructure improvements facilitating trade to Mozambican ports and the Brazilian money facilitating much needed upgrades to aging roads and train lines.

I was sad, then, to see a recent New York Times report on the state of the rural poor in Mozambique. As in Malawi, the average individual in Mozambique fits that description to a tee, eking out a living on a smallholder farm, farming a variety of crops in small quantities, primarily for subsistence but with some for sale to local traders and markets. Investments in extractive industries and their profits do not reach an isolated rural farmer, and in fact, might even harm his interests by degrading the environment, or as in this example in Mozambique, relocating entire villages to make room for coal mines. The result is that the poor stay poor or even get poorer, while the extractives create a new class of wealthy in the country, widening the gulf between the two. And Mozambique’s example is nothing compared to Nigeria, where the inequality is coupling with history to spinning off violence in the northern and Delta regions of the country.

I think Freemantle is right to note that  inequality in Africa will play into the political and security dynamics of the years to come, and perhaps even undermine the continent’s bright economic prospects. There is room for optimism still, as the Times piece points out, seen in the examples of countries like Bostwana and projects like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. For now, at the least, when I hear enthusiasm about skyrocketing growth rates in Africa now, I temper that by asking myself whether trickle-down economics have worked back home.

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Rules of the Road II

One physical comfort I miss from life in Washington is the city’s gleaming metro system. I recall complaining about its wait times, and the fact that to get to U Street from Adams Morgan was highly inconvenient even though the two are pretty close to one another geographically. Those were the days!

Public transport in Malawi is a bit of a misnomer. First of all, it’s certainly not public. Instead buses are run by big guys who happen to own vans and their assorted helpers. Second, it is only transport on good days. Sometimes these buses just sit by the side of the road, or more likely than not, smack in the middle of intersections. I was on a minibus last week that ran out of gas, with ten passengers including myself sandwiched in on the threadbare seats. It coasted into a gas station, which was mercifully nearby. There, the driver learned that the fuel at the station, and well, all across the city was out. Good things my shoes collection here is nothing if not sensible.

There are two things I actually do like about minibuses in Malawi. The first is that I usually get chatting to someone on the bus, inevitably because they are curious to see a mzungu on a minibus. It’s a somewhat rare sight in town, and it raises eyebrows. The second piece I enjoy about minibuses is the names. They are all painted white, which is some kind of regulation, but the drivers have full discretion over naming the vehicles. They exercise this freedom by christening the buses with names like “Filadelphia” and “DC sniper,” names that have personal significance for me, though I can’t for the life of me understand what they have to do with buses in Malawi. Buses also feature sayings like “If God says yes, who can say no?” and “Return to sender” which leave me scratching my head wondering what I am missing.

This month I am borrowing a friend’s car to get around town. The timing coincided with a bout of fuel shortages across the country. My first experience getting fuel here in Malawi was, like pretty much all other mundane aspects of life here, more eventful than I could have imagined. When there are fuel shortages in town, rumors fly about tankers heading in from Mozambique and which petrol station is rumored to have secret reserves. Today I actually saw a group of cars trailing a tanker through town, waiting to see which petrol station he was heading for. When the fuel does arrive in town, text messages circulate the community about which stations to visit, and when to go to avoid the lines. Last weekend, my housemate and I raced over to one of the stations downtown when we got word that they had fuel, and were lucky to beat the crowds and only face a thirty-minute wait. The lines are relatively orderly, although the stations hire G4S as security to keep things running smoothly and hedge against chaos.

When my turn in line came and the attendant asked me to open the tank, I became very grateful to the security when I realized I had no idea how to open it. I pride myself on careful planning and thinking through processes. This mistake was not one of my finer moments given the thirty minutes I had spent sitting in the car just waiting for the big moment. I looked in all the usual spaces for the magic tank button, and no dice. I explained the problem to the attendant, who came over to the driver’s side and began helping me look. Before I knew it, about four attendants were crawling through the car with me, lifting mats and flaps trying to find the switch. The three door Rav became a clown car with limbs flying out from all windows and doors. In all the chaos, we set off the alarm in the hypersensitive South African car, just as I reached the car’s more knowledgeable custodian to at last get instructions. We finally found the button to open the tank hidden under a piece of trash. I managed to create a ten minute delay in a crowd of angry drivers and get away unscathed, with a full tank of fuel, and a marriage proposal from the attendant, who probably decided that this hopeless foreign woman needed a man in her life to set things straight. That, or just an owner’s manual for the car.

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