Hopes to Bring Malawi From Humble Status Quo to Prominence

Photo by Kemi Osukoya/ THEAFRICABAZAAR magazine. President Peter Matharika speaking with a guest at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September 2015.

December/ January 2016

As the adjacent door of the hotel room where I have been sitting and waiting to interview President of Malawi Arthur Peter Mutharika opens, everyone in the room stands up and the Presidential guard assumes a military salute position as the President walks into the room.

President Mutharika walks to the opposite side of the desk where I am sitting, shakes my hand and motions for me to sit as he takes his seat. He asks for my name, and the publication and I thank him for giving me the opportunity to interview him.

It’s not everyday that someone of modest beginnings in the American news industry/ journalism gets a chance to meet and interview a sitting President of a nation for an article in my own publication.

Six years ago (Spring 2009) when I launched this publication, THEAFRICABAZAAR magazine, with only a handful of a team, the mission was to give a holistic business news coverage and dialogue about Africa which were missing from mainstream media. While in that six years there have been positive changes in the news coverage about Africa, the years have brought its own highs and lows for me personally, and I am not as naive as I was about some of the shenanigans that go on behind-the-scenes in the publishing business and within the African diaspora communities as I was when I started out. In fact, I have picked up some lessons along the way, and learned that we are just as flawed as other communities, but we continue to work on improving, which brings me back to this interview.

President Mutharika is in New York city, along with hundreds of other world leaders for the annual United Nations General Assembly meetings, which take place from mid-September to early October when dignitaries and business leaders from around the world mile the streets of New York city. I had arranged the interview through his Senior Advisor after I made a request upon meeting the President at an event at the Council on Foreign Relations. The first interview date was rescheduled due to a conflict in the president’s schedule that day. This interview takes place in early October at the Midtown Hilton Hotel. The President and his entourage are occupying a floor and you can see the not so discreet secret service officers as you get off the elevator.

“This is audio?” President Mutharika asks me as I turn on my tape recorder to begin the interview.

“Yes, it’s both audio and print. I’m recording it now, which I will review later when writing the article,” I reply.

“Good, let’s get started,” says President Mutharika, looking at me directly, indicating that he is ready for me to begin the interview.

While this is not my first rodeo interviewing prominent business leaders or senior government officials, it’s my first interviewing a sitting President of a nation. I quickly take-in what I think is a quiet deep breath and a quick glance around the room to calm my nerves and shake off edginess. The hotel room we are in has been turned into a makeshift Presidential Office for the president to conduct interviews, meetings and other executive businesses while he is in town.

President Mutharika notices my glance at the room and explains to me that the recent budget that was passed mandates that all government officials, including himself, limit their nonessential and extravagance expenses when traveling overseas, thus the lack of opulence decor of the room.

The interview begins with talking about affordable energy and inevitably addresses the current drought in Malawi and how the President plans to turn his country’s economy around.

I begin by asking President Mutharika to explain how he plans to bring access to affordable energy in the rural areas of Malawi and across the country.

On President Mutharika’s agenda to generate revenues for the Malawian economy: Tackling the energy pandemic, improve food security, connect the rural and urban so people have better access to transportations, housing, health and ensuring that women are included in the government.

“You have to understand that on a substantial level, when you talk about energy, there is simply nothing that can be done– first of all without energy. So it is a real priority for us right now,” President Mutharika tells me. “For example, we want to go into mining and uranium, which require a lot of diesel. Oil bills are very high. We want power, especially since we are going into mining, we are going to need a lot of energy. At the moment, Malawi depends on hydro-electric and our megawatts is fairly 90MW, but because of the water level, which has gone down, we are at a depth of 80MW because there is not enough water in the lakes and rivers. This also happened in 1981 when the rivers almost dried out, so we want to move into other forms of energy and the most obvious one is solar, which is very expensive. To produce solar energy, for each megawatt, you need one hectare of land, which takes a lot of space. We will go into solar, but at the moment, the one that we are looking at is coal. Coal is big in Mozambique, and we hope with coal, we can bring it to 1000MW. We will start with about 300MW. We are looking at investments through Power Africa. the most important sector is actually energy.”

Next, I ask if he is concerned about the negative environmental impact of burning coal for energy. In particular the possibility that western investors might not be so warm to the idea given the current climate change, and what will be some of his strategies to convince these investors to invest in coal as a form of energy

The President notes he is very aware that some investors might feel apprehensive about investing in coal [a malignant energy source], and says part of his strategy is to explain to investors the benefits of using coal for energy in Malawi and that it can be done in a clean way as opposed to the old ways, and if done right, will prove to be more beneficial to a broader plan he has for the country, such as housing. To state his points, he explains that “one advantage of coal is that there’s a lot of sulfur out of coal, they become stardusts, ashes, which can then be used in building constructions. The advantage there is that there will be a lot more usefulness for coal for the power generation and housing.”

“What we’re going to do with housing is move people from mud houses.” he continues. “We are setting up a program to subsidize housing for low income people – seniors, children who have become orphaned by AIDS, and people with disabilities – and we don’t want to be burdened with using bricks or cutting trees– so that ashes from the coal mixed with cements and sands, if you mix that together, it will become concrete and we can make that into bricks. [Sulfur concrete is impermeable and has a higher strength and corrosion resistance, which makes it more applicable to use in building construction in areas where there is flooding or dam]. Can you imagine how many people that will help?” he implies.

President Mutharika also points to coal usage in America. “The whole population in West Virginia and other areas like Pennsylvania, coal mining is going on, but I also know some of the environmental people are against coal that it pollutes the air, but today it can be done with a minimum damage to the environment,” President Mutharika says.

According to the African Development Bank, Malawi is one of the least electrified countries globally, currently at 10 percent overall with 37 percent of the urban and only 2 percent of the rural population are connected to electricity, based on a Rapid Assessment/ Gap Analysis of the energy sector in 2012 and in 2015 conducted by the Bank. The country’s current energy policy indicates that approximately 93 percent of its energy supply comes from biomass largely exploited in a non-sustainable manner. Imported petroleum accounts for 3.5 percent of the energy and electricity produced from hydropower accounts for 2.3 percent of all energy. Malawi has subsequently, embarked on the process of developing its national SE4All Action Agenda and Investment Prospectus, which is available on the AfDB’s website.

As part of Mutharika administration’s plans to provide access to affordable energy, the President has implemented prepaid meters as a mean to curb electricity theft and improve access. “Though more on the technical side,” President Matharika says. “It’s a way to prevent energy abuse. Sometimes people don’t pay their bills, but with prepaid meters, it will prevent abuse of energy, and would be much easier to collect tariffs and stop energy abuse.”

As President Mutharika mentioned earlier in the interview, the country is also looking into mining and uranium, given that some of its neighboring countries are rich in mineral resources.

Last year, the World Bank Group and the European Union launched a geophysical survey data in helping the nation find out the prospects of mineral wealth. Though it is just raw data, several stakeholders that include investors, the public and development partners have been keenly waiting for the data, hoping that the release of this data and its analysis will lead to informed next steps and actions.

The survey, which was done under the Mining Governance and Growth Support Project, co-financed by the World Bank and EU with a commitment of $30 million, aims to help Malawi overcome some of the challenges faced by its mining sector, mainly through improving efficiently, transparency and sustainability of the mining sector management.

“The launched of the airborne geophysical survey data confirms that Malawi has moved forward to explore its mineral resource more deeply. At the world bank, we are very proud to be associated with the grand step up in developing Malawi’s mining sector,” says Laura Kellenberg, World Bank Country’s manager for Malawi, during the launch in September.

Running a country already demands enough challenges for any president, but when you add to that pool the challenge of overcoming the shadow of your revered brother’s presidential accomplishments, which included achieving food security through agricultural production, it could bring on a lot of stress on any presidency. Just ask U.S. Presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who– if he wins the Republican nomination as expected, his family could become an American dynasty. (For the record: A reference to an American Presidential candidate is not an endorsement of any 2016 American Presidential candidate or party.)

Mutharika’s brother, President Bingu wa Mutharika was well beloved by the people of Malawi and international donors during his presidential term, [though, like any presidency, there were some controversies] until his sudden death in 2012. When President Bingu wa Mutharika was elected in 2004, the country was experiencing extreme hunger caused by draught and flooding. Despite resistance from western donors and banks, he decided to implement a subsidy program for farmers to help improve crops by subsidizing maize and also the seeds. The idea was to provide the farmers with subsidies to grow crops- in this case maize and rice, and hope that the farmers will grow enough maize, and rice, enough to sell part of it for income, so the following year, he or she will not need the subsidy from the government. The subsidy program proved to be an excellent program that alleviated the country from experiencing hunger in early 2000s to exporting maize and rice by 2007-8, enough to send more than 100,000 tons of rice overseas to help feed a country that was experiencing a similar situation caused by flood and draught.

President Peter Mutharika, who was a member of his brother’s cabinet during that presidency, and won his own election 10 years later in May 2014, says he know he has big shoes to fill. The President tells me he is aware of the expectations and even though he is prepared to meet and exceed them, he says this is no time for sentiments. He is focused on getting the country back on its feet by fixing the economy, food security and finding solutions to issues like housing, health, and gender inequality.

For a president, Peter Mutharika is very hands-on with his administration – in a good way- with the affairs of the country and plans to have his fingerprints on the country blueprint. He knows exactly what he wants and is getting a chance to build up and design a new plan from scratch.

President Peter Mutharika arrived at the presidency having honed his skills working in his brother’s cabinet as Minister of Justice, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Minister of Education and as a professor at one of the U.S.’s leading universities. He arrived in America as a graduate student, and unable to return home because of political situation there, he lived in the U.S. for over 50 years and worked at a university until he retired in 2009 and returned to Malawi.

On President Mutharika’s agenda to generate revenues for the Malawian economy: Tackling the energy pandemic, improve food security, connect the rural and urban so people have better access to transportations, housing, health and ensuring that women are included in the government.

A major part of Mutharika’s economic strategy is housing and infrastructure development. His administration plans to provide housing for middle income to low income families in the urban and rural areas through subsidies and build houses for children left orphaned by the 1990s AIDS epidemic in the country.

“A lot of companies, both from the West and Asia, are interested in investing and developing housing infrastructures,” he tells me. “ We have housing subsidies whereby we assist people with cement and coal ashes. We would like to get them out of grass houses and mud houses because most of these have the tendencies to destroy during flood. We assist people with ashes and they pay about 50 percent of the cement price and they build their own houses. Others who are really low low income, we build houses for them and that category includes elderly, people with disabilities and families headed by orphans – we have quite a few orphans from AIDS in the 1990s. Families, a whole generation that was wiped out by AIDS, left children orphaned. These children are left in charged of their siblings- those we build houses for for free,” President Mutharika tells me.

Since the President mentions AIDS, and children who were orphaned by the epidemic, I tell him about a recent Pew Research study that polled Africans on the continent about what their top concerns and needs are. The two top issues from the study are health and education. I ask the President what his administration’s policies are to address these issues?

“They are both very important issues, but the most important is health, which we of course wants to improve, especially women’s health, girls and children and the issue of AIDS,” President Mutharika says. “Regarding AIDS, Malawi is actually ahead of other countries in term of stemming HIV/AIDS, given such promise- it has been the most successful country with the option B plans, which prevents transmission from mother to child during pregnancy and very soon, we hope to be leading in that area too. For the next family plan, we will like to adapt the Vancouver Declaration to provide to anybody who has HIV virus, irrespective of their city or county, to have access to treatment. In malaria and tuberculosis we’re doing well. Where we want to do more work is in preventive medicine such as noncommunicable diseases such as diabetes. We have many people walking around with diabetes and high blood pressure and not knowing they have the diseases, so we want to have a way of getting more people aware and tested.”

“Those are major issues that are common across Africa,” I indicate and then ask him to elaborate on how his administration plan to go about educating and bringing more awareness to those health issues.

“We are looking at having mobile clinics,” he elucidates on his answer. “It’s not difficult to test for diabetes or high blood pressure to see whether someone has the disease. We will institute mobile clinics throughout the country, but as we are doing that, we will also be looking at moving away from the sort of treatments all the time to preventive medicine- now, that’s the difficult part,” he admits. “To do that, we are educating people and building medical schools, but also training nurses and midwives and others to assist in educating the people. The health sector is very important to our administration. I think it is the second largest budget after education and we have met the Abuja declaration, which says governments should set aside 50 percent of their budget for the health sector.”

Historically, Malawi has been known primarily as an agricultural country. It was a top producer and exporter of maize and rice, but in recent years, due to drought and flooding, that have been reversed. But President Mutharika is not looking to continue with this status quo, given that the country is dealing with extreme drought brought on by the negative effects of climate change that has left millions of people in the country in hunger. Now his administration is looking to diversify and move away from that. I ask the President to address the issue of food security and his plans to revitalize the agriculture sector to its glorious days so it can capitalize on the sector to improve the economy.

President Mutharika is quick to explain that most of the nation’s crops now come from tobacco, 60 percent from tobacco, and the rest from teas, and nuts. “Agriculture is an important sector,” Mutharika says. “The problem we have now is lack of rain in Southern Africa. Drought. Rain don’t come or they come with force and flood the soil. For the first time, we’re going to face hunger. For the first time in 11 years since we introduced the food surplus program. Malawi was exporting maize. This time over 2.8 million people are affected because of drought and because of that, we’re moving toward Greenbelt – that is Malawi is surrounded by many lakes and rivers, so we want to go into massive irrigation so that in two or three years, we are not depending on rain. We are going to put 500,000 hectares of irrigating in the South to the Central and the North and once we do that, we will be able to grow enough maize for export and we don’t have to depend on rain, so if the rain comes, fine and that will add more and if not it is fine. So we plan for massive investments in agriculture.”

In the early 2000s, President Mutharika’s brother implemented similar program to reverse the effects of flooding and drought on the crops. It worked well to feed the country. If the same idea proves to be a winning ticket for the current President Mutharika, Malawi would win a jackpot in food security and could soon become a major food exporter within the next few years. The country also can serve as a case study for other developing countries that are considering similar practices to provide food security and combat the effects of climate changes such as flooding, and El Nino.

When you talk about food security in the context of economy, you also have to address the issues of trade, especially when it comes to exporting food surplus and regional, continental, or international trade, so I ask the President if there are specific regions or countries that he is looking to for investments to fund these plans – United States, Europe or Asia or a combination of two or all.

The President tells me that he is open to all investors who are interested. “We welcome all investors. We are opening shortly a sugar factory near the lake that is being funded by an Indian company through a line of credit, but we are also looking at investors in other countries including in the U.S.”

Talking about investors, I mention that Kellogg, the American food manufacturing company, recently invested in Egypt and Nigeria – maize is a key ingredient in producing some of their products. Given that his administration is still trying to find solution to the drought, I ask if he has approached Kellogg or other international food manufacturing and agribusiness to assist in his plans and if any of them are interested in doing business deals based on Malawi was once a net exporter.

President Mutharika says right now, most of the current investments are done by small scale farmers for food security.

Since the President mentions small scale farmers. I quickly ask him to elaborate on his administration’s strategy to address some of the challenges that small scale farmers face such as lack of access to credit, financing, lack of equipments and technical skills, and also the issue of ensuring that efforts of international corporations, though well intentioned, that bring in new seeds/ crops for investments, are capitalized upon to improve crops harvesting and storage to help farmers to be able to capitalize on those investments.

The President says there are already a number of projects in the pipeline in regards to financing and that his administration plans to start a microfinancing program for small scale farmers. “I met with the Head of OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation), and hope they will invest about $10,000 to $100,000, which when you convert to Malawi’s currency, it’s about 8 million and that will be set aside for small scale and mid-sized enterprises. So there will be funding, and also corporative farming and now we are developing a commodity stock exchange to facilitate crops selling. Over 70 percent of farmers, small scale farmers are women – we have the cooperatives, so when the cooperatives are collecting the products – whether it’s maize or cowpeas or soybeans, nuts, – when they take that to the commodity exchange where buyers can compete, that means they will get a better price. At the moment, individual trader go to the market and buyers pay almost nothing for the products, so that has to improve and the commodity exchange will improve the pricing. We are very excited about that for the people. The Oslo Exchange is helping to establish that.”

“One of the other things I’d like to talk about in terms of education is gender issues,” I say. “Gender issues are some of the top issues across Africa.

“Sure,” President Mutharika says, nodding in agreement.

So I ask, “When it comes to education, most African families prefer to educate boys over girls. When it comes to sending children to schools, I’m talking specifically about primary and secondary school educations, there are issues of violence against girls – sexual and physical assaults. What are your administration plans to address general violence against women, girls and domestic spousals abuse and violence?

“There are two issues here,” President Mutharika tells me. “The first issue, I don’t think Malawi has a preference of educating boys over girls.”

“But it is an issue in Africa,” I imply in response to the President’s answer.

“Maybe in some African countries, but in Malawi, favoring boys, maybe two generations ago, but today, I think boys and girls going to school depend on whether the family, parents have the capability to send their child/ren to schools,” says President Mutharika.

As our interview continues, I see out of the corner of my eyes his press secretary indicating to him to wrap up the interview, and for a moment I thought he would end the interview right away without answering my question, but he tells his press secretary that he wants to respond to my question before ending the interview.

President Mutharika continues with his response to my question about the pandemic disparities between girls’ and boys’ education in Africa and the barriers that contribute to the inequality in education.

“On the issue of violence, girls do face challenges which boys do not face, for example, walking distances to school. It has been established, instances that if a girl walks more than four kilometers to school, most of them, 50 percent, drop out of schools before certain age and sometimes that is due to violence. So now we are now building hostels for girls to stay in during school year through the first education-related foundation – Beautify Malawi – and in connection with other groups. Now, while building hostels for girls, the issue of toilets is very very important in schools, especially for girls when they reach the age of puberty. Some of them don’t go to school during the timing of their menstrual cycles because there are no facilities [toilets]. So we are building facilities for girls. We are doing everything now to make sure that girls have as much chance as boys in completing their education. Also, most girls who dropped out because they became pregnant- before that was the end, but now they can come back after their baby is born and continue their education. There are facilities [daycares, nurseries] where the child will be taken care while the mother/ girl attend school. Even those [programs] are post development, I do agree that girls face challenges which boys don’t and we’re doing our best to address those issues.”

“What about your administration having more women on board in your cabinet for inclusivity?” I quickly follow up on my question about closing the gender gaps and inequality in Malawi and in general, Africa.

“We tried our best, but I don’t think we succeeded, and there are political reasons for that,” President Matharika explains. “I don’t think certain members, cabinet ministers, in 2009, there were about 44 MP, in 2014, it dropped to 22. We don’t know why. Gender equality – that is one of the things I was discussing with some people over here [he is referring to the U.N General Assembly]- that maybe we need to develop an affirmative policy like the one that was done in Rwanda’s Constitution, that certain constituency, only women can compete in that area. What Rwanda has done in terms of integrating women into politics and parliament, I think is wonderful. So the problem for us is how do we best choose, reach women- I have four women ambassadors heading embassies in very important countries – in South Africa, Egypt, Zimbabwe.” On that note, he heeds his press secretary advice and ends the interview.

I stand up, I thank him, and tell him that it has been a great honor to interview him. As I make my way out of the room, he tells his press secretary to give me his card and information and that I can contact him if I need any additional information for my article. I thank him once again before leaving the room.

*This Interview was conducted in October 2015. The article was first published in the December 2015/January 2016 issue. The online version has been updated.*

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