Economy of Malawi

Malawi’s economy is reliant on agriculture, with around 90% of the population living in rural areas. A landlocked country, Malawi is one of the world’s least developed. The economy depends on aid and assistance from the World Bank, the IMF and donor nations and the government faces the challenges of boosting exports, improving education and health facilities, addressing environmental problems and dealing with HIV and AIDS. In the March 2011 Euromoney Country Risk rankings Malawi was ranked the 188 th safest investment destination in the world.

Agriculture represents 37% of Malawi’s gross domestic product (GDP), employs more than 80% of the work force and represents around 80% of exports.

The most important export crop is tobacco, which accounts for 70% of revenue. Malawi was the 10th largest tobacco producer in the world in 2000. But this reliance on tobacco puts pressure on the economy because global market prices are falling and there are calls to limit production.

Malawi is also heavily reliant on tea, sugarcane and coffee. Tea is mostly grown in Mulanie and Thyolo and was introduced in 1878. Other crops are corn, potatoes, cotton and sorghum, and cattle and goat farming are also common.

The country is self-sufficient in maize, its staple food and nearly 90% of the population is engaged in subsistence farming. Smallholdings produce crops such as maize, beans, rice, tobacco, groundnuts and cassava.

The reliance on agriculture puts Malawi’s economy in an unstable position and vulnerable to market changes and drought. Coupled with high transport costs, which can be a third of the total import bill, this stifles economic development and trade. All fuel must be imported and a lack of skilled labour and poor transport and communication networks further compound the problems.

Malawi has been through structural adjustment programmes supported by the World Bank and IMF, as well as country donors. Reform objectives have included private sector stimulation, liberalising trade and foreign exchange and civil service reform. The country qualified for Heavily Indebted Poor Country relief.

Real GDP grew by 3.6% in 1999 and 2.1% in 2000 and the average annual inflation rate around that time was 30%. There are bilateral trade agreements in place with South Africa and Zimbabwe.

A fertiliser subsidy programme was started in 2006 to boost crop production and this is said to be leading toradical improvements in the industry. But in 2011 there were downturns and economic protests were held.

As of 2004 more than half the population (53%) were below the poverty line and the public debt in 2006 was 39.4% of GDP. The external debt amounted to $468 million, and a year earlier some $575.3 million was received in economic aid.

As of February 2013 the exchange rate for the Malawian kwacha was 360.00 per US dollar.


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Transportation and Communications in Malawi

Transport is not well developed in Malawi. It has 44 airports, of which six have paved runways and 38 are unpaved. There are 495 miles of narrow-gauge railways and around 45% of the roads (4,322 miles of 9,601 miles) are paved. Despite being landlocked there are 435 miles of waterways on Lake Malawi and the Shire River. Ports include Chipoka, Moneky Bay, Nkhata Bay, Chilumba and Nkhotakota.

The national airline is Air Malawi, which operates a regional passenger service. The airline is based in Blantyre and owned by the government. It operates mainly out of Chileka International Airport in Blantyre and also has a hub at Lilongwe International Airport.

Malawi Railways is the national rail network. Until 1999 it was run by a government corporation but then became privatised when the Central East African Railways, a consortium that is headed up by Railroad Development Corporation, won the right to operate the rail network. The rail line extends from the Zambian border, via Lolongwe to Blantyre and Makhanga. It lines with the Nacal Corridor line heading east at Nkaya Junction. The southbound link from Makhanga to the Beria corridor has been closed since the Mozambique civil war. In 2010 an extension from Mchinii to Chipata in Zambia opened, and it is proposed that this will eventually link to the TAZARA railway at Mpika.

The telephone system in Malawi is rudimentary. In 2007 there were 175,200 landlines in the country and 1.051 million mobile phones. This is around eight mobiles per 100 people. Telecommunications in Malawi have previously been some of the worst in Africa, but the service is improving. The vast majority of landlines (130,000) were installed between 200 and 2007. Under a quarter of landlines are found in rural areas.

At 2007 there were 139,500 internet users in the country, and three internet service providers as of 2002. In 2001 there were 14 radio stations in Malawi and one television station.


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Demographics of Malawi

The name Malawi comes from the Maravi, Bantu peoples who came to the region from the southern Congo around six centuries ago. They split into two groups on arrival at Lake Malawi and by the 16 th century had established a kingdom. A cohesive Malawian society did not form until the early 20 th century due to migrations and tribal conflicts. Distinctions and rivalries between Malawi regions do still exist and there are clear differences, but these do not cause any major friction between groups.

In central parts of the country the Chewas make up around 90% of the population. In the south the Nyanja tribe dominates and in the north the Tumbuka. Many Tongas live in the north and Ngonis, an offshoot of the Zulus, live in lower northern and lower central regions. The mostly Muslim Yao live in southern regions.

The 2010 revision of the World Population Prospects states that Malawi’s total population in that year was 14,901,000. This is a huge growth on the 1950 figure of 2,881,000. The proportion of children under the age of 15 in 2010 was 45.8%. Just more than half of the population were between 15 and 65 and 3.1% were 65 or older.

The UN population projection suggests the numbers in Malawi will grow by 17,522×1000 by 2015, and 49,719×1000 by 2050. It also shows an estimated infant mortality rate of 95 in 1,000 births between 2005 and 2010, half the 198 per 1,000 seen in 1950-1955.

Other population statistics for Malawi include:

  • Popultion growth rate of 2.763%
  • One doctor per 65,000 people
  • Life expectancy at birth of 51.7 years

Malawi is one of sub-Saharan Africa’s most densely populated countries. The population in the capital of Lilongwe is more than 400,000. The main commercial centre and largest city is Blantyre, which grew from 109,000 people in 1996 to nearly 500,000 in 1998.

Christianity is the most common religion, followed by Islam. English and Chichewa are the official languages. Just under two-thirds of the 15 and over population can read and write, but the male to female proportion is very unequal. More than three-quarters of males are literate, compared to just under half of females.

Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries. Around three-quarters of the population survive on less than $1.25 a day. The maternal mortality rate is high and figures suggest that around 10 women die in childbirth every day. This leaves around one million children orphaned. HIV and AIDS are also common, and many youngsters face shortened lives and childhood illnesses as a result.


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Culture of Malawi

Malawi comes from the Maravi, a Bantu tribe that came to the country from the southern Congo in the 15th century. They reached what is now Lake Malawi and divided into two groups. One moved south and became the Chewa group, and the other moved to southern Malawi and are the ancestors of today’s Nyanja tribe. Over the years conflict and migration stood in the way of the creation of a cohesive Malawian society, but there is now no major inter-ethnic friction. Regional divisions are still seen, but the idea of a Malawian nationality has begun to form.

Between 1964 and 2010 the flag had three equal horizontal stripes of black, red and green with a red rising sun on the centre of the black stripe. The black represented African people, red the blood of martyres for freedom and green for the ever-green nature of the country. The flag was changed in 2010 and the red sun replaced with a full white sun to signify the country’s economic development.

Dance is a strong part of Malawi’s culture. The National Dance Troupe formed in 1987 and traditional dances are seen at rituals, marriages and initiation rites. Football is the most common sport and was introduced when Malawi was under British colonial rule, but basketball is becoming more popular.

Indigenous ethnic groups have a tradition of basketry and mask carving and their products are used in ceremonies. In the urban areas wood carvings and oil paintings are prevalent and pieces are sold to tourists. Poet Jack Mapanie, history and fiction writer Paul Zeleza and authors including Felix Mnthali, Frank Chipasula, David Rubadiri and Legson Kayira hail from Malawi.

Music in Malawi has been influenced by British, African and American culture. Malawians are travellers and migrant workers across Africa so their music has spread throughout the continent. World War II was a significant period of musical blending and by the end of the war guitar and banjo duos were the most popular dance bands. When Banda was in power the arts were repressed and censored and music was restricted to that praising Banda and non-controversial and non-political messages. When the democratic process changed Malawian music began to grow and artists could practice publicly.

Types of music include:

  • Kwela – Popular in the late 1960s Malawi produced many kwela stars. The word in Chichewa means “to climb”.
  • Jazz – This has little in common with American jazz. Rural musicians play acoustic instruments and jazz concerts are common throughout the country. Sunday Jazz is a particularly popular event in hotels.
  • Kwasa kwasa – This is influence by music from the 1980s from the Congo.
  • Hip-Hop and rap – Urban music in Malawi really took off with the group Real Elements who brought an urban American sound to the country with Chichewa lyrics.
  • Gospel – One of the most popular types of music, inspired in large parts by the Pope’s visit in 1989.
  • R&B – The R&B scene in Malawi is growing, with many up and coming artists.
  • Reggae – This has always been popular in Malawi and musicians play songs of resistance and struggle, injustice, corruption and equality.

Lake of Stars Music Festival

Lake of Stars is a four-day music festival that is held on the shores of Lake Malawi. The name comes from the romantic nickname for the lake which was given by explorer David Livingstone. The festival first took place in October 2004 and was founded by Will Jameson. He wanted a way to raise money, promote Malawi as a tourist destination and give Malawian musicians some international exposure. He had visited Malawi in 1998 as a Wildlife Society volunteer and launched the festival while at university in Liverpool. Groove Armada’s Andy Cato was the first headline act and the festival won the Malawi Tourism Award in its first year.

Music types at the festival are diverse, from Afropop and reggae to folk and beat-boxers. In the first year there were 1,200 attendees, and this grew to 3,000 in 2008. National young volunteers service vinspired started to sponsor the festival in 2009.

The festival has four main pillars; music, travel, charity and development. The aim of the event is to unite diverse music and cultures in an international gathering of talents. Lake of Stars not only promotes Malawian music and tourism but also raises funds for charity and supports projects in the area.



The very first festival took place at the Chintheche Inn on the north-west shore of the lake. Around 700 people attended.



Held in the same place, the festival grew in the following year with 1,000 people in attendance. Felix B of Basement Jaxx and DJ Yoda were the headline acts. The event generated more than £100,000 for the economy.



Again held at Chintheche Inn, 1,200 people attended Lake of Stars in 2006. The minister of tourism opened the festival and pre-events took place in London, Liverpool, Cape Town and Johannesburg to further raise the profile of the event.



In 2007 some 1,500 people came to the festival at Chintheche Inn. Annie Mac from BBC Radio 1, Rodney P and Skitz from 1Xtra and Malawian artist Lucius Banda were the headliners. The festival raised more than £4,600 for UNICEF initiatives in the country, and once again Lake of Stars events took place across Africa and the UK before and after the main festival.



In 2008 the festival moved to Senga Bay and it was attended by 2,500 people. Acts included Scratch Perverts, BBC Radio 1’s Mary Anne Hobbs, Man Like Me, Fabric’s Ali B play and local African acts.



The 2009 festival took place at Sunbird Nkopola Lodge in southern Malawi with headliners The Maccabees, SWAY, Hot Chip’s Joe Goddard, Radioclit presents The Very Best, Tayo, Radio 1’s Nihal, Fabric’s Ali B, Ross Allen and Dekker & Johan.


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Geography of Malawi

Malawi is located in south-east Africa and is within the tropics. It is a strip of land between Zambia and Mozambique and protrudes south along the valley of the Shire River. It shares a border with Tanzania too. Malawi is a landlocked country and is traversed north to south by the Great Rift Valley. Lake Malawi, the third- largest lake in Africa, makes up around a fifth of Malawi’s total area. The Shire River flows from the south of the lake and joins with the Zambezi in Mozambique. West of the Great Rift Valley the land plateaus between 900 and 1,200 metres above sea level. To the north, the Nyika Uplands rise to 2,600 metres. West of the lake and in northern and central Malawi the World Wildlife Fund has designated the land as part of the Central Zambezian Miombo woodlands eco region. The Shire Highlands are south of the lake and rise to 2,130 metres and 3,002 metres at the Zomba Plateau and Mulanie Massif. In the extreme south the elevations are much lower at only 90 metres.

There are five national parks in Malawi; Cape Maclear, Kasungu, Lengwe, Liwonde and Nyika.

Malawi is one of the most densely populated countries in sub-Saharan Africa. In the capital Lilongwe the population exceeds 400,000. Blantyre is the main commercial centre and largest city. It had around 109,000 residents in 1996, which grew to nearly 500,000 in 1998.

The climate in Malawi is tropical, with a rainy season from November to April and very little rainfall from May to October. Between September and April it his hot and humid near the lake and in the Shire Valley, with daytime maximums up to 29 degrees C. The rest of Malawi is slightly cooler during these months at around 25 degrees C. Temperatures can drop at night, particularly in higher areas.

Malawi has a total area of 118,480 sq km, including 24,400 sq km of water surface (Lake Malawi mostly but also other bodies of water such as Lake Chilwa, Lake Malombe and Lake Chiuta). Most of the country, apart from one eastern area, is part of the Zambezi drainage system. Lake Malawi drains into the Zambezi through the Shire. Lake Chiuta and the plain is drained by the Lugenda River, part of the Ruvuma drainage system. Lake Chilwa has no outlet but flows into Lake Chiuta when it overflows.

Environmental issues in Malawi include; deforestation, water pollution because of agricultural runoff, land degradation, industrial waste and sewage. The country has international agreements on issues such as biodiversity, climate change, endangered species, marine life, wetlands and desertification.


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Malawi Politics

Malawi has a democratic, multi-party government led by President Joyce Banda under a constitution that was brought in in May 1995. The government branches are executive, legislative and judicial.

The executive includes the President, who is chief of state and head of government, as well as first and second Vice Presidents and the cabinet. The President is elected to office every five years, and the Vice President is elected in the same way. If the President appoints a second Vice President that person must be from a different party.

The legislative branch has a unicameral National Assembly with nearly 200 members. They are elected every five years. The constitution also provides for a Senate, but this has not been created in practice.

The judicial branch is independent and based on the English model. It has a constitutional court, High Court, Supreme Court of Appeal and Magistrates Courts.

There are at present nine political parties in Malawi. The Democratic Progressive Party is the ruling party, and the Malawi Congress Party and United Democratic Front are the main opposition parties.

Malawi’s three regions (northern, central and southern) are divided into 28 districts, then into 250 authorities and 100 administrative wards. Regional administrators and district commissioners, who are appointed by central government, administer the local government.

Former President Hastings Banda established the pro-Western foreign policy and this continued to 2011, giving Malawi good diplomatic relationships with Western countries. The formation of the multi-party democracy further bolstered ties with the US. In 2007 Malawi established diplomatic ties with China and Chinese investment into the country continues. In recent years the UK has suspended budgetary aid for Malawi and the US did the same in 2011.

Malawi belongs to many international organisations such as the UN, the IMF, World Health Organisation and World Bank.

Human rights issues in Malawi were raised in 2010 as police forces were seen to be using excessive force, security personnel acted with impunity and mob violence was sometimes seen. The government did make efforts to prosecute those who used excessive force, but other issues included limits on free speech and the press, arbitrary arrests and harsh prison conditions. Human trafficking, violence against women and child labour are also problems. The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) attempts to reduce corruption within government, but this is still seen as a major issue.

Homosexuality was illegal in Malawi and couples could face long periods in jail if convicted. One couple received a pardon after the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon intervened. President Banda pledged to repeal the criminality of homosexuality in 2012.


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The History of Malawi

Now known as Malawi, this area of Africa was home to a very small number of hunter-gatherers prior to the immigration of Bantu-speaking peoples from the north around the 10th century. Some of these Bantu people continued their emigration south but some stayed in the area and they founded tribes based on common ancestry. By the year 1500, they had established a kingdom that reached from what is now Nkhotakota to the Zambezi River and from Lake Malawi to the Luangwa River.


The area was, for the most part, united under one ruler but soon after the turn of the 17 th century the natives began to trade and make alliances with Portuguese military and traders. By 1700 the empire was broken up into areas controlled by different tribes.


Explorer David Livingstone reached Lake Nyasa (now known as Lake Malawi) in 1859 and determined that the Shire Highlands to the south were suited to European settlement. Several Anglican and Presbyterian missions were established in the following years, and the African Lakes Company Limited was set up in 1878 as a trade and transport concern. In 1876 a mission and trading settlement was established in Blantyre, followed by a British consul in 1883. Around this time the Portuguese government also had interests in this area, so to prevent their occupation the British government sent Henry Hamilton Johnston as a British consul. His role was to make treaties with rulers that went beyond Portuguese jurisdiction.


A British protectorate over the Shire Highlands was proclaimed in 1889 and this was extended two years later as the British Central Africa Protectorate. This was renamed Nyasaland in 1907. The colonial government had been formed in 1891 and administrators had an annual budget of £10,000, enough for employment of 10 European civilians, two military officers, 70 Punjab Sikhs and 85 Zanzibar porters. They had to administer and police the territory, which stretched to 94,000 sq km and was home to one to two million people.


The Nyasaland African Congress (NAC) formed in 1944 and in 1953 Britain linked Nyasaland with Northern and Southern Rhodesia as the Central African Federation (CAF). This was semi-independent, but the NAC continued to gain popular support. Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda was elected president of the NAC in 1959 and worked on a new constitution for Nyasaland to grant Africans the majority in the Legislative Counsel. Two years later his Malawi Congress Party gained the majority in the elections and Banda became Prime Minsiter in 1963. A year later Nyasaland gained independence from British rule and renamed itself Malawi. The country became a single-party state and Banda ruled for nearly three decades.


A referendum took place in 1993 and the public voted for a multi-party democracy. The first elections took place the next year and Bakili Muluzi became president, followed by Dr Bingu wa Mutharika in 2004. President Mutharika died of a heart attack in 2012 and the role was taken by former Vice President Joyce Banda.


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Malawi News is the news website of Open Arms Malawi, a UK trust that runs Open Arms Infant Homes giving orphaned and disadvantaged youngsters a fresh start in life.

Here you will find all the latest news reports from Malawi, covering politics, health, the economy, sports, tourism, nature and wildlife and, of course, the people.

Malawi News also reports on the latest fundraising initiatives that are supporting communities in Malawi, from our own Open Arms projects and work to campaigns by the likes of Comic Relief.

We scour the internet and local Malawi news sources to keep you up-to-date on developments in the country, creating a link between our supporters back home in the UK and the communities they help in Africa.


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