I’m a change agent, not a tourist

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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 Kevin Wills

I do not want to be a tourist. I do not want the LUANAR students or the vendors in the market to look at me and just think that I am another white person that comes in to ask what problems they have, snap some pictures for Facebook, and leave their lives unchanged. I do not want this experience to pass by aimlessly and not learn anything substantive during the process.

There are moments when I think about our problems that we must solve in Area 25A and lose hope that we can actually create a meaningful change in how the market is operated in such a short period.

Everyone we meet in the market says the biggest problem they face is access to capital. The City Council emphasizes infrastructure. But how does the City Council respond to the needs of infrastructure if they too lack capital and people to effect change in the infrastructure of the markets? The prevalent problem seems to be a complete lack of money to accomplish anything. Initially if you look at the problem of capital within the market, it seems like an easy fix. The market masters and chairpersons can use parts of the collected dues to provide low-interest microcredit loans. The vendors can group together in associations or cooperatives to pool what little profit in order to obtain product at wholesale price or ease transportation costs in bulk. The market association can collect dues through a payment plan in order to ease the daily stress of providing dues from little profit.

But then the problems arise. All dues collected from the vendors goes to City Council, never to be seen again. The City Council does not provide infrastructure improvement or electricity to the market – even the shelter took 4 years between request and action. Microcredit loans seem like an impossibility – not to mention the insurmountable of explaining the appeal of giving out loans to “high risk” applicants, despite research indicating that these applicants tend to pay back loans with a lower default rate than traditional loans. Cooperatives do not really exist in 25A because vendors tend not to stay in one place. Because the main road lies a bit further from the existing infrastructure of the market, many of the vendors move out to the main road – or even to other markets with more business on certain days – which makes it more difficult for a centralized cooperative movement.

Additionally, the problem of time is a factor in profit and the buying of product. If a vendor runs out of tomatoes, he is not going to want to wait for the other vendors to run out of tomatoes before he buys new product – he wants to be able to make a profit as soon as possible. Lastly, if this vendor wants to source from a more distant area that provides cheaper tomatoes, he does not have time or money to argue with other vendors over whether or not to go the extra distance to source cheaper tomatoes. Payment plans are nonexistent for vendors at 25A because the vendors do not have a designated market in which to sell. If vendors wanted to set up illegally outside of the market in order to avoid dues or attract more customers, he can leave with little repercussions from the City Council if otherwise caught. Additionally, vendors can set up at different markets entirely. The market system in Malawi seems like the penultimate system of unregulated free market whereby very few people rise to the point where they do not have to worry about capital.

I want to be a key actor for change here. I do not want people to see me as a tourist that does not want to change or even care about the problems they face. I want to make an impact with this program, even if it is only a change in the discourse of the market system within and between City Council and the markets. I just do not know how that is going to happen.

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