Rising prices hurt Malawi’s poor

Silota Phiri, 71, a retired primary school teacher from Mwasinde Village in the area of Traditional Authority Chigaru, Blantyre, is not embarrassed to admit that the last time he ate bread was last year, when a loaf was selling at K110.

He struggles to recall if things were ever this bad for him and his family, and admits that recently he actually thought his taste buds had stopped functioning.

“At first, I thought I was losing out on my sense of taste,” Silota said at his retirement home in Mwasinde Village.  “I thought it was my age that was playing games on me.

“With all my experience with life, I still struggled to figure out what was happening to me.  I then realised that this is because I seldom eat the things I used to (eat) in the past.”

“In the past, we never worried about relish because it was handy in the gardens,” added Silota ‘s wife Mary.  “No more. Nowadays, even pumpkin leaves are costing too much to buy.

“Whereas we used to buy ten leaves for MK 5, the situation is very different now, when four leaves are costing MK20.”

Like many Malawians, Silota and Mary have been overwhelmed by the recent, unheralded rise in the price of common commodities.

Though the couple is attempting to augment the meagre month-to-month retirement package Silota gets from the Ministry of Education by experimenting with pig farming, having sold one pig for MK 20,000 three weeks ago, they say “the money [is] still not enough.”

“Just imagine, I bought a packet of sugar at the cost of MK 250 early January, because there were reports that the price could be hiked,” explained Silota.  “But the MK 20,000 will not be enough to see us through because maize husks cost MK 750 for a 50 kilogram bag.”

Employees of Malawi retail chain store Peoples Trading Centre compare February 2012 prices to February 2011 prices. Photo by Karissa Gall.

Employees of Malawi retail chain store Peoples Trading Centre confirmed that the cost of white sugar has risen from MK 195 to MK 220 for a one kilogram bag since February last year.  Likewise, a one kilogram bag of maize flour has risen from MK 95 to MK 140, one litre of Kazinga cooking oil has risen from MK 715 to MK 950, 500 millilitres of fresh milk has risen from MK 110 to MK 150, and 250 grams of lifebuoy soup has risen from MK 70 to MK 100.

According to the Consumers Association of Malawi executive director, John Kapito, the unprecedented rise in commodity prices has been caused and compounded by factors such as foreign exchange rates and the unavailability of key commodities such as fuel.

“The levels at which inflation (the rate at which goods and services’ prices rise) affects people depends on the type of basket a country uses to come up with inflation rates,” said Kapito.  “For example, Malawi only uses the food basket – which contributes about 60 percent (of consumer spending) – leaving other important baskets unaccounted for.

“In our case, people have come to think that commodity price rises are solely because of inflation.  But there are other factors that have exacerbated the situation; they include foreign exchange rates and the unavailability of key commodities and products such as fuel.  If petrol cannot be found, the cost of transport increases,” he said.

Kapito added that the other factor that has rendered some products unaffordable to the majority of Malawians is the proliferation of parallel market dealings.

Because basic commodities cannot be sourced from the formal market, he said, people are relying on the informal market, a development that has lead to price rises.

Mary Sailesi has been forced to raise the price of three pieces of wood from MK 50 in January 2011 to MK 100 in February 2012. Photo by Karissa Gall.

For Mary Sailesi, who sells firewood and charcoal along the Zalewa Road, the signs that prices are going haywire are sitting on display for all to see.  She said she used to sell three pieces of wood at MK 50 in January 2011; now, the price has gone up to MK 100.

“We understand that, in a rural setting like ours, not many people can afford.  But we also want to survive,” she said.

With files from the Sunday Times Richard Chirombo

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About karissagall

Karissa Gall is a Canadian journalist.

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