Some believe that the way out of poverty for a developing country is private entrepreneurship and NOT foreign assistance. These same people argue that aid agencies do little to “teach a country to fish” and instead fuel the growing fire of disparity between the poorest of the poor and the rich.
I’m not going to pretend I know the first thing about global economics and international aid (though being here has definitely got me thinking about it more than ever) but I do know that Malawi is full of entrepreneurs.
Last week I went to a wood market that I had been to a handful of times. I was with a friend, Johnny, who was looking to trade some personal belongings for a few things to take home as gifts. The guys that sell their crafts in this place are aggressive. When walking across the street they will run out and say, “My name’s Spiderman, what’s yours?” Before long you’re in a circle talking with James Bond, Fred Flintstone and Bill Clinton.
I had known of this tactic from previous trips to Malawi. I remember thinking it was funny and a bit awkward. I didn’t know how to respond, but now I do. When I am approached, I answer questions in broken English with equally poor Chichewa and then laugh when the salesmen try to figure out what just happened. On Saturday while the masses were trying to make a deal with Johnny, I got talking with Chicken Legs. He told me his real name was Peter, but that there were hundreds of Peters in Lilongwe, but only one Chicken Legs—People remember Chicken Legs. Fair enough.
As we walked away James Bond screamed something to Johnny about how I was “his pastor.” Johnny asked if he really goes to the church I am serving. I’ve never seen him on a Sunday morning, but it’s still kinda fun to say I am James Bond’s pastor.
But business ingenuity doesn’t stop with the craft sellers. Whether it is a hand painted sign on the side of the road or an advertisement written on the side of a wall, each entrepreneur tries to get a leg up on the competition. Some business offer as many services as possible (we frequently pass by building that says, “mini-mart and drivers education—a perfectly sensible combination”), others claim their product is better than the competition (like the car garage that has painted on the wall, “not corrupt”) and some steal popular store names that are used elsewhere (I bet hundred’s of visitors go into the local 7/11 looking for a slurpee only to be disappointed that it’s a butcher shop).
Sadly, the most successful private businesses are not owned by Malawians. They are South African, Zimbabwean, Indian or Chinese. If entrepreneurship is really going to help Malawi become self-dependant, something has to be done about the market poaching that continues to hinder development. James Bond and Chicken Legs need to be given an opportunity to compete with the big boys of distant lands. And something tells me they’ll need help to get that chance.