This is the fourth in a series of Postcards From Malawi by Jodee Taylor who, with her husband, Joe Mielke, is helping a Malawian friend open a lodge and restaurant at the foot of Mount Mulanje. Read more at her blog at http://mymulanje.wordpress.com.
The business model of Malawi is like none I’ve ever worked with before. I don’t think I’ve successfully completed a transaction in the three months I’ve been here.
Sure, I’ve bought food and toothpaste and books, but I haven’t truly succeeded at any “business.” Which is awkward, because I’m here to help open a small B&B.
One of my first attempts was to try to get a refrigerator to hold beer and pop. I got names and phone numbers of a salesperson and a manager at the regional distributor. I called the salesperson to set up a time to meet with her. She said she was in a meeting and would call me back (that’s another weird thing; Malawians answer their phones no matter what’s going on, whether they’re at work or getting stopped by the police. Probably has something to do with no voice-mail). I waited three days, and called her again. She was on her way to a work retreat and couldn’t talk. I called back a week later and we arranged to meet at 11 a.m. the following Wednesday.
She never showed up. I called and texted and she never responded.
I found this odd, especially because I was trying to spend money with her company. Someone who has lived here for years told me that businesspeople in Malawi have the attitude they’re doing you a favor. It doesn’t matter that you’re the one spending money; they are the ones holding the strings and you have to play by their rules.
I kept that in mind when I tried to order signs for the B&B. We’d already been to the offset printing business, which was fancy and high-tech and in a big, glass building. The guy we dealt with there gave us a tour, showed us some of their other work, gave us an estimate and promised a quick turnaround. I got his business card and told him I’d be in touch when the artwork was ready.
Granted, it was a couple weeks until the artwork was ready but when I emailed it to him, I got no response. I sent a followup email. No response. I called the phone number on his business card and it rang and rang. I called the other phone number on his business card and a recording said, “This phone number does not exist.” I went to the website and emailed the “info@...” address and got no response.
The owner of the B&B found another printer and wrapped up the transaction.
Several more oddities have happened in the ensuing weeks. We’re staying at another lodge while ours is under construction. We had a week-long power outage and never heard from the manager nor were offered any help. In fact, I never even met the manager until I went to his office to report smoke coming out of the cottage next to us (he didn’t do anything about it. We had to track down an electrician).
Most of the businesses in Malawi are small, family owned and especially lovely when the business owner takes pride in his or her work. But the small businesses have their own tactic - the azungu price.
Because I am white, I am considered rich. It doesn’t matter that I am not rich or that my boss is Malawian; just my mere presence jacks up the price, sometimes by a few kwacha and sometimes by 10 times the regular price. If I’m shopping somewhere that doesn’t have marked prices, I am assured of paying more than the Malawian next to me. Most of our food comes from local markets, where a pineapple (locally grown and delicious) sells for about 250 kwacha (62 cents). It’s a pittance, I know, so I feel silly dickering. But the guy in front of me only paid 150 kwacha, so I insist on the same price. “Azungu!,” the vendor mutters. I put the pineapple back and go to the next vendor or a vendor 10 stalls down, but it doesn’t matter. The azungu price has been set.
Yet it backfires, Malawians, so wise up. We’ve found vendors who charge us a fair price and we keep returning to them. So the 250 kwacha you could have made from me in one day actually becomes 1,500 kwacha over the course of a week.
Who’s getting azungu’d now?