Monthly Archives: June 2013

The Way Forward for Recycling in Malawi


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. 


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


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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