Entrepreneurship in Malawi

Perhaps it is due to the relative states of their economies, but business in Malawi doesn’t appear to be ring-fenced like it is in the
UK, where we misleadingly hear that “the CBI speaks for business” or “the government consults business”.  This misleading ring-fencing, I think, makes it easier for the various voices you hear in a debate on the position of commerce in society to judge business as either intrinsically moral or intrinsically immoral.  Intrinsically, of course, it is neither.  It is a law of free human interaction.


We can describe poverty as almost always associated with a lack of access to certain ‘human interactions’.  What has struck me already from my work at the MicroLoan Foundation, which lends start-up capital to the poor, securitised by group borrowing, is that the benefit of entrepreneurship for the disempowered poor is not only the access it gives to commercial interactions, but to other, perhaps social, interactions.  Because our only collateral is the group, women in a MicroLoan Foundation borrowing group make a contract with each other that is based explicitly on trust.  This trust inevitably extends beyond the financial management of the loan.  For example in the use of group savings, which are a requirement before and during borrowing.  These may be used if an individual falls on hard times, creating a measure of security for the very poorest in a way similar to the old ‘friendly societies’.  Any attempts to improve the lot of the poorest must, I suspect, recognise the importance of joining people together – of multiplying human interactions.


9 thoughts on “Entrepreneurship in Malawi”

  1. My friend Tris replied by email with this:

    With reference to your definition of commerce, I would suggest that the design mechanisms of commercial activity do indeed have intrinsic values.

    Currency design rules determine that one human activity or person’s time holds greater value than another. Rules of exchange and price inflation determine that one currency has greater value than another so that a human activity in one location holds greater value than the identical activity in an alternate location – for example a doctor in Malawi is valued less commercially than a doctor in the UK.

    Commerce is the polar opposite of free human interaction, it is valuing human interaction – it is saying that Nurse Ratchet’s human interaction is worth £7 per hour and Doctor Spock’s is worth £400 per hour – that is an intrinsic vale determined by commercial activity and the design mechanisms of that commercial activity. Giving one person more worth than another is surely a moral judgement?

  2. If by ‘design mechanisms’ you refer to the systems of national and international regulation governing trade, I would agree that there are systems and rules which may be judged morally by their consequences. These regulations may protect or inhibit free human interaction.

    However, if you mean that valuing one service or product relative to another is intrinsically immoral, I must disagree. This is the very basis of commerce and is a law of human interaction, neither moral nor immoral.

    Commerce does indeed place value on transactions. One person’s time may be considered to be of greater value than another’s. We do not need to over-complicate this observation by referring to ‘currency design rules’ for it to hold true.

    We need, however, to make a distinction between putting a value on an individual (it is Kant, I think, who says we should never treat people as means – only ends) and the service they provide. It is entirely proper for a society to determine how much they value ‘nursing’ as a service. Or indeed any other service – I’m sure you will agree that it is entirely proper that a Doctor’s time is given one value, whilst a nurse has another, and a cleaner another. In this respect commerce is not the polar opposite of free human interaction – it is precisely what happens when humans have liberty to interact and make choices about what they value. (The mechanism for this valuation, the extent to which the valuing of a service is determined by the market or government, is an important question, but different to the question of the value itself.) If a society values nursing at $75 per month, as they do in Malawi, there won’t be many nurses and society must decide if this is acceptable.

    This, of course, gives rise to two issues. Is society able to pay if it values nursing, and do nurses have a choice to refuse to accept poor wages and to take up other employment?

    In the case of nursing in the UK, the question of society’s ability to pay is a relatively simple one of tax payers’ preparedness to fund the NHS. To some extent this is universally true – all societies have limited resources and must distribute them. The question of Malawi’s ability to pay is grossly complicated by issues such as unjust trade laws and internal corruption. The international trade mechanisms preventing free access to international markets I would judge morally as unjust

    At the micro level, the question of whether nurses have a choice to accept low wages is important. In order for commercial interactions to be free, access to land and capital is vital. It is essential that there is real access to self sufficiency or self employment if wages are below what people are prepared to accept. In the, widespread, situation where the choice to reject poor working wages or conditions is restricted, through inability to access land and capital, we may rightly regard the regulation in place, or lack of it, as immoral.

  3. I’ve been puzzled by these remarks of yours; that ‘economics is not a value judgement’; that valuing one service relative to another is neither moral not immoral. What do you mean? If we value the wrong things at the expense of the right things then we are behaving immorally. (Aren’t we?) I’m not being rhetorical – I genuinely don’t understand what you’re getting at.

  4. Thank you for the comment. It is an interesting observation and I don’t mean to answer with too much of a sense of assuredness. However…

    Firstly, it is important to differentiate between a person and the service he provides. We act as teachers or salesmen, but we are not, ultimately, teachers or salesmen. This is important when questions of morality are considered. In our (moral) actions we must treat people as ends and not means.

    Secondly. There are needs. Commercial activity is a mechanism for meeting those needs. Where the fulfilment of one’s needs does not impede on another person’s, the question, I think, becomes one of choice and preference, not morality. Valuing oranges over cabbages, or valuing oranges twice as much as cabbages, is not a moral decision.

    Thirdly. Where human interaction is free commercial transactions are amoral. It is the rules governing commercial transactions and human interaction which bring morality into the equation. In many cases the rules governing human interaction impede free interaction. If human interaction is truly free there is no injustice in commercial interactions because enterprises take into account the true cost (as opposed to what is often percieved to be today) of their externalities, and access to land and capital means that there is always a choice between accepting wages and self employment.

    ps. can you send me an email so I have your email address again, please.

  5. My friend battytat replied by email with this:

    Can’t say I agree with you about the morality of enterprise. If it were all about meeting needs then I’d find it harder to disagree. But since a lot of commercial activity would not take place unless needs were purposefully manufactured, I don’t see why ecologists and the left shouldn’t continue to despise much of it. (Consciously causing people to desire things they don’t need seems a pretty good example of treating people as means rather than ends.)

    Even if it were solely about meeting a need they’d still be questions wouldn’t there? Sexual activity is a need. (Even Catholics reckon abstinence is a gift of grace.) We might still reasonably raise concerns about the morality of prostitution.

  6. Firstly, I don’t actually think we are disagreeing as fundamentally as it seems. Of course enterprise should be considered in the context of morality.

    The correct context in which to consider morality in enterprise is in the made-man laws, structures and norms that govern our commercial and human interactions and in the intent and result of those interactions. My point is exactly that. The inherent quality of enterprise itself is not what should be judged morally; it is a consequence of natural laws (e.g. that supply will increase if demand does) as much as is an apple falling from a tree.

    My second point is perhaps where our disagreement lies. It is a depressing, pessimistic, fatalistic and un-Enlightened vision of humanity that insists that we are utterly at the whim of externally and malignantly manufactured needs. Our needs are usually appropriate and certainly complex. Supply and demand exist, of course, in a symbiotic relationship.

  7. Jacob, I for one would like to thank you on behalf of Malawians for MicroLoan Foundation. I am a Malawian man who does business in malawi. This is a different approach to charity indeed. Its opened up opportunities for the masses and provides help to the needy

  8. jacob Kestener

    Help how i can answer this question. You have been hired as an Operations manager by Maldeco fishing , an organisation to be rooted in a small fishing farming town in Mangochi. Prepare a selling document for this organisation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s