Updated: Jan 21
Someone recently wondered whether a country would make developmental progress if policy makers were to pay attention to college projects. Indeed, the infatuation with possibilities actualized through experimental and childish play underscores the developed state of the West today, dating way back several thousand years. And it continues today. Three of America’s largest tech firms – Microsoft, Apple and Facebook – were start-ups at college campuses or student home garages. Having surpassed the level of secondary industry, much of the developed world relies on a solid base of production and consumption, backed by strong ownership of factors of production to maintain wealth and to keep firing the engines of tertiary industry.
The industrial revolution of the mid-seventeenth to mid-eighteenth centuries came to address an important livelihood problem. It replaced many of the menial, repetitive and unhealthy tasks that humans were subjected to performing in factories, on farms and in homes by machines. The industrial revolution transformed the quality and scale at which goods and services were produced while releasing labor into managerial, service sector and thought-driven professions to improve the quality of life – more income-oriented work.
It also improved the way we understand our world. Even Japan, a barren piece of volcanic rock in the Pacific, became an important ship-building power that improved exploration of the oceans and continents, in turn having an important effect on how peoples of the world connect.
Four centuries on, Africa and Malawi need to refrain from behaving as if there was a cap on unleashing the industrial revolution by the time the eighteenth century ended. And they should realize it will happen at a much lesser cost.
We have done it before.
In the early 1990s, a University of Malawi (Polytechnic) engineering student developed a vacuum pump as part of his final year engineering project. The pump, which operated on boiling a 200 litre drum filled with water to a certain predetermined volume, would create a vacuum once the water was allowed to cool and the vapor condense. Opening a valve that connected a pipe to the drum on one end and a pail full of water on the other immediately sucked the water from the pail into the drum. As suspected, this project started and ended as a college experiment, and the possibilities of its impact on Malawians will never be realized. This story was heard once, and has never been told again, at least not in our circles.
What follow are several success experiments in the country, which the country has unfortunately been unable to harness for its development. In the 2000s, dire circumstances engulfing William Kamkwamba’s family led to his development of a windmill using the most rudimentary tools. William’s windmills continue to spin in Wimbe, Kasungu, feeding electricity to an entire village. Its source, an endless supply of free, clean air. The support of few Malawians, but mostly foreigners, have made it possible for this dream to continue through the Moving Windmills Project.
We then have had the honor of hearing of Felix Kambwiri, who dreams of flying someday, although along with his story is much laughter among many skeptics; or Corled Nkosi, a rogue electric engineer who can hardly compute Ohms and Volts, but provides cell phone charging services at a fee, thanks to his Kasangazi Hydro-Electric Plant; or Mr. Chinula in the highlands between Mzuzu City and Nkhata Bay, who will never share the plight of Malawians as power outages astound the nation, by channeling water from the mountains into canals that turn small turbines to power up his home.
The potential to beat the odds for a developing, landlocked, country is tremendous for Malawi. Very few Malawians will know of the late Professor Landson Mhango, a Malawian engineer who spent his life teaching abroad while developing airplane parts that have reshaped the aviation industry forever. Little, if any, credit comes back to Malawi in the most useful ways, although a larger problem lies within. Malawi has not accustomed itself to capture such knowledge and inspiration to share it among its own, to garner the momentum needed for future innovation. The culture of education is itself yet to learn to identify the talent available everywhere, including in the most heretical places, as neither Mr. Kamkwamba, nor Mr. Kambwiri, nor Mr. Nkosi were dreaming of university life when their inventions came to actualization.
The inventions and innovations that the engineers above were able to develop are what we term intermediate goods in our recent publication on entrepreneurship. Intermediate goods enable the creation of goods and services that are usable by the everyday person while transforming a country from a consuming to a producing economy.
Solutions for Development-oriented production.
Based on the foregoing, our lament should not be about accessibility of goods and services on our markets. It should be about the abilities of the country and its citizens to build industries that will bring hard-to-find products to local markets. For those following our publications, we recently argued for energy planning to stick to the vision policy makers envisaged, ensuring that interference by political interests is eliminated if electricity will be readily available. So, if our political masters were to empower the combining of policy meticulousness with a business sector that dedicates to energizing local industries to produce, the country would be on its way to development.
In Malawi, we do not see things this way, even as we trumpet a Buy Malawian campaign. Our mentality is invested in trading, meaning expending our talents, foreign exchange reserves, and tax holidays, on importers. Consumer goods determinately disappear from the face of the earth and soon enough we will be courting international markets for more, all for the benefit of the trader in Old Town or Blantyre’s business district. A legacy only Bakili Muluzi will have succeeded leaving behind.
Our national policy needs to demonstrate it realizes the needs of our 16.4 million people, which is more than a blanket statement for being an agrarian economy. If a real industrial revolution will take place, it will allow us to relax while a robot endures the vigors of making nsima, an energy-intensive labor of survival we have indulged in for hundreds of years. It is a slap in the face of Joshua Ngalande, another Malawian inventor who, in 2010, developed a Nsima Popugali Cooker (watch our video above). Mr. Ngalande’s cooker is yet to be completed as the prototype for a chip-carrying pot needs proper manufacture.
Our winter cropping would have benefitted greatly from good quality treadle pumps manufactured locally, doing away with cheap Asian machines, with government subsidies being directed at the designing equipment and technologies. Public investments would shy away from importation of expensive agriculture consumables to satisfy an insatiable Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP). In this vein, a company called Engineering and Foundry Ltd. produces good quality durable agricultural equipment. It is no doubt it can supply a lasting treadle pump cheaply for the smallholder farmer in both the local and regional markets, if the incentives for it were given in adequate measure. There are many others.
Our industrial revolution would be achieved cheaply if we only exploited two of mankind’s recent scientific achievements. Today, we are endowed with a dense variety of affordable technology, and we have extremely efficient information flows. These two ingredients are a formidable ensemble that allows knowledge to be passed cheaply for the development of essentially anything a modern inventor imagines. More importantly, the duo will be critical for lowering costs of production of intermediate goods and, consequently, final tradeables, while increasing the productivity of Malawian industry workers and employment.
Looking back to our entrepreneurship publication, the government needs to propel the Malawi Industrial Research and Technology Development Center (MIRTDC), by financing it adequately, to regulate ICT for innovation development and advance its role in building models for several kinds of machines. The MIRTDC should also assess the human capacity needs that will drive the industrial revolution, instructing government on how formal and informal education channels will make this human capital development possible.
Our Polytechnic student should not be forgotten. His inspiration for others will not have to falter. Chances are high that more will come, more with an education higher than the revered pioneers discussed in this publication. In some other realms, others are making progress. Mr. Kamkwamba’s windmills are the hint that we can pioneer a green industrial revolution. An inspiring example is the talented Rachel Sibande, founder and Chief Executive Officer of mHub Malawi, who is teaching young people, especially young women, skills in software engineering. A tertiary level skill, software development is important in industrial Malawi for its prowess to inform and instruct machines to do what they are designed to do for humans.
Malawi launched a National Export Strategy (NES) in recent years. We can assure our compatriots that the dream of a positive trade balance – someday – will remain for as long as there is no mechanism to anchor manufacturing and labor productivity in a policy environment that advances the spirit of a Malawian industrial revolution. Its affordability is a rare opportunity we need to take advantage of.
Finally, until the government grasps the influence of public investment in Malawi’s industrial development, it will only continue the desperation of a country suffering insufficiency.