Musings in Malawi: A first look at markets in Lilongwe

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of posts by students from Michigan State University in the U.S. and LUANAR University in Malawi who participated in the Frugal Innovations Program of the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation.

By Trish Abalo

7:14pm. (Translated, in my head- “East Lansing: 1:14pm. I hope Gaby has eaten lunch.”)

I woke up with my head on the dinner table, a few minutes ago – not even remembering slipping into sleep. My notebook is saturated with illegible scribbles, deep underlining, and perhaps overly enthusiastic arrows. Mcmillan gave us a candle to greet the darkness, but it’s folding itself neatly into a little puddle.

I’m exhausted; slightly overwhelmed; the power is out for the second night in a row. And I honestly wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Today was the first official day in the field, for my team’s research project: the “Frugal Innovation Practicum,” under the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, at Michigan State University, sponsored by the United States Agency for International Development (FIP, GCFSI, MSU, USAID, respectively – for my fellow policy geeks, this project celebrates acronyms).

I want to thank the sun and dirt and heartbeat that comes with visiting a Malawian urban market for the first time. I’m striving to balance the demands of being present in the market, and simultaneously aware of my biases and perspective as a cis-female Filipina American student from Michigan State, originally from Midland, Michigan.

I want to thank Edgar, my peer at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), for discussing the packaging of honey in Malawi vs. South Africa; the joy of raw cassava; and his preference for the bus window slightly open.

I want to thank Kurt Lewin for coining “action research,” and Alfred North Whitehead for the following quote:

“You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction.”

Navigating the markets for the first time, at the end of Malawian winter and having arrived on LUANAR’s Bunda campus yesterday, we were encouraged to keep innovation systems theory in mind, guiding our hours in market.

It’s difficult.

Dawdling in the way of men carrying white, bulky sacks on their heads. Witnessing women and children’s gait and the deep orange, red, and blue of their clothing. Encountering the constant declarations of better pricing. Registering the spacing of the fluffy cauliflower and lettuce, green veggies lined up neatly. Admiring stacks of silver fish, reminiscent of my own mother’s cooking. Musing over what is on my shoes and how these peppers were transported. Recognizing my difficulty in walking through the narrow spaces between stalls vs. the purposeful stride of those around me.

It’s vital.

Theory in practice, practice in theory. Beauty. We have theory and case studies founding, shaping, and pushing our research, with research simultaneously recognizing, challenging, and compelling theory.  As an incoming senior at Michigan State, who has been given the privilege to engage with Lyman Briggs classes, College of Social Science advisers, and Honors courses, I’m mustering the concentrated deliberation of small group discussion. Trading stories about the vast campus of our MSU. Reflecting on how gender analysis manifests in urban market interactions.

This trip so far has been striving for everything learning can be. Messy, but authentic. Collaborative, but structured. Immersive, and yet, familiar. (I love how I can be so human, aware of my family back home, my little sister, Gaby. And yet, a student, researching to ‘observe, plan, act, and reflect’ on how free trade zones affect local markets, and how plump tomatoes, sitting in clever rows and stacks, embody innovation in marketing presentability.)

From this practicum, two days in, I’m in love with how we, as learners, doers, persons, can engage with the world.

The only pair of sandals I brought for this trip is still smeared with dirt, and I smell of Ultrathon 34.34 percent  DEET. My belly is full of nsima, samosas, and sausage. I’m exhausted, aware, happy in the recognition of how illustrative this trip has been (only two days in!)

For now, let’s end with this:

1) Research is not glamorous, but bridging theory in practice illuminates the perceived mundane. Trying to keep an open mind as we navigate understanding for the sake of understanding, as well as evolving solutions.

2) Topics on my mind: Tangerines from Mozambique, chickens from Zimbabwe, market value, infrastructure tied to sanitation, demand, collaboration, trust, and knowledge diffusion.

3) People don’t need saving. People are adaptive, and dynamic, and creative. I’m ending this writing in the dark, with my candle lodged in its own residual hot wax, to keep it standing without a holder.

I watched our Malawian cook, after a night of catering for others during a power outage, Mcmillan, do this.

To exploring innovation- “Hobey-ho, let’s go.”

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