It is Monday morning. And scores of people, mostly youthful, are lined up outside labour offices in the commercial capital, Blantyre, in search of a job opportunity.
Few miles away, dozens others are queuing at a number of production companies around Makata industrial site. They have a common agenda; the pursuit of happiness.
To the dismay of most, only a few could be taken on board as the job market is too fragile to consume them all.
One of the more telling challenges the Malawi economy has is high levels of unemployment.
Malawians continue to swim in abject poverty and unemployment despite several efforts by authorities and development partners to lift the country out of suffering.
Recently for instance, there were ugly scenes in the country’s three major cities when thousands of youths on a job hunt thronged places where the government was recruiting Health Surveillance Assistants.
Surfacing of Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the situation as it has pushed thousands of workers out of employment.
A bigger percentage of the country’s population is the youth.
A report by the World Economic Forum issued late last year shows that unemployment and underemployment risk is Malawi’s most pressing concern for businesses in the short-term.
Seasoned industry captains recall how vibrant the job market was when many companies were operational and could hire hundreds of employees in the 1980’s and early 90’s before the fall of the sector
Streets in Industrial sites such as Makata and Maselema in Blantyre, Kanengo in Lilongwe and Luwinga in Mzuzu were filled with noises from machines that were being operated on during production.
Over two decades ahead, the situation has significantly changed with most of the manufacturing industries closed and others scaled down production.
Companies such as Lever Brothers Malawi Limited which later became Unilever, Mapeto David Whitehead Limited, Brown and Clapperton Limited, PEW and Stagecoach Malawi, which later became Shire Bus Lines, just to mention a few hoisted the industry at a point in time.
Former Managing Director of Nampack Limited, Simon Itaye, points out to competition brought about by opening up of the local market through regional pacts, diversion from rail transport and a volatile exchange rate among major challenges that lead to the downfall of the industry sector.
“During that time, Malawi had not opened up as much as it has done now, even foreign exchange was highly controlled by the government but they now loosened up the rules. I remember that time we were called packaging industries, to increase prices of cartons we had to seek approvals from the Reserve Bank. As soon as we started signing trade agreements some companies couldn’t exists in the new environment.
“Transport is another major problem because to get production materials from the rest of the world would cost 20 to 45 percent of the landed cost which is huge but before the war in Mozambique we could get such imports via rail through the port of Beira so it was cheaper than road transport,” Itaye said.
He added that the tax burden on the industry has also played a role in defeating the sector over the years.
He says duty paid on raw materials has been a huge hindrance especially that in the 80’s some raw materials were imported duty free under the Customs Act which were reviewed about five years ago.
Director of Business Environment and Policy Advocacy at the Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI), Madalitso Kazembe, added that Malawi’s manufacturing sector faces tremendous energy supply deficits for production and poor regulation of markets which work contrary to their survival.
“Poor regulation of markets has resulted in deterioration of production standards for goods produced in the country which creates a price gap between high quality products, produced at higher costs and the low quality products which are produced at lower costs.
“These low quality goods attract more buyers at a national or domestic level while Malawi’s product competitiveness at the international level continues to fall drastically,” Kazembe said.
Minister of Industry, Roy Kachale, conceded that the industry has fallen over the years due to a hostile doing business environment coupled with implementation of a privatisation policy without sound and proper planning.
During their campaign, Tonse Alliance promised to create one million jobs for young Malawians who have been swimming in the world of unemployment.
Recently, the government said it has set a roadmap where it is working with the private sector in creating job opportunities for Malawians and addressing challenges of unemployment in the country.
Minister of Labour, Ken Kandodo, said in an interview that this is a step towards creating the one million jobs.
“We are engaging employers on their recruitment plan, how many people they have at the moment, how many do they plan to employ next year, and how we can help make that happen and so forth.
“Apart from this, we will establish job centres in major towns in the country where people will check available jobs and submit their credentials for a possible match,” Kandodo said.
In its submission to the ministry, Employers Consultative Association of Malawi (Ecam) highlighted corruption, energy woes, high transport costs and rising government debt to the private sector among major hindrances to creating job opportunities.
It further points to agriculture, education and skills development, revamping of economic policies, and digital economy push, among enablers to achieving the one million jobs goal.
When all is said and done, multitude of the young people on the lookout for jobs are keeping their fingers crossed.