Promoting Malawi’s Tourism sector: Lessons from São Miguel

A hiking path on São Miguel

São Miguel is an island located in the North Atlantic Ocean about 1,500km off the coast of Lisbon and 3,900km from the east coast of North America. It is one of nine islands and the largest of Portugal’s autonomous Azores Archipelago.

As an island that covers 760 km2 (290 sq mi) and has around 140,000 inhabitants, São Miguel (which earned the nickname ‘Ilha Verde’ [Green Island]) is a major attraction that draws visitors from around the world who come to see its beautiful nature, volcanic scenery, hot springs, characterful towns and rich marine life, among other attractions.

The island cultivates food staples and crops such as tea, pineapple, and tobacco and has established fishing and diary industries. In the past, Sao Miguel was known for exporting oranges to Europe (mainly to Great Britain).

A pineapple plantation in São Miguel

Tourists can explore Graça Market, visit the blue china shop, take walks around the streets of Carvalho Araújo, Pedro Homem and D’Água (in Ponta Delgada’s historical centre), visit the Arquipélago Modern Arts Centre, go bike riding, or go shopping in Louvre Michaelense – São Miguel’s most beautiful store. If water activity is your thing, you can go kayaking, canoeing, bathe in hot springs, whale spotting (several deep-sea species swim next to the coastline, including sperm whales, several species of beaked whales and dolphins) or even go swimming with dolphins.

A selection of hotel rates in São Miguel (October 2020 via Google)

Most hotels are clean and affordable, and there’s something to suit every budget. Travellers on Trip Advisor report of good standards, lovely food and plenty of activities to suit different tastes.

Two lakes at Sete Cidades

The twin blue and green lakes that fill the base of the Sete Cidades caldera in the west of São Miguel are another beautiful attraction that draws thousands of tourists each year. You can hike around the lakes themselves or do the 12km loop around the caldera rim.

Why does it matter? Why should we care?

Last week the Vice President of Malawi met officials from Kasungu, Salima, Nkhotakota and Mchinji. Chilima said his reforms were aimed at repositioning and preparing the councils of these owns to effectively and efficiently execute service delivery to the people of Malawi.

“It is the goal of the administration to establish secondary cities that would have village industries, processing plants, and organised marets, a conceptthat his Excellency has tasked the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development and Public Sector Reforms and the Ministry of Local Government to implement with urgency” the Vice President said.

He said the councils needed to identify areas that will drive their financial sustainabilityand improve service delivery with the aim of improving the livelihoods of Malawians. This sounds like a call for specialisation. I.e. what can our districts do, and encourage for there to be increased economic activity, and for us to be self-sufficient?

Chilima said: “I have emphasized to specific councils to leverage tourism. For example, Nkhotakota has seven lakes and a game reserve which if promoted would create opportunities for expansion into water transport and sustainable fishing”

Since it is the case that when commentators highlight countries like Rwanda, or Botswana as countries which Malawi should aspire to follow; or when the developmental trajectory of a city such as Dubai is brought up, it seems to some like the comparison is quite a large leap- and the criticism is along the lines of you’re comparing apples with oranges, then surely considering what a small island has done (or continues to do) – to encourage tourism (never mind other industries) has got to be a much fairer comparison?

Should Malawi’s next Cabinet reflect the country’s demographics?

So you’ve managed to get the May 2019 Presidential election results nullified. Great! And since February the 3rd of this year, your beloved Malawi, the beautiful country which you love has become a shinning star, the gold-standard in judicial independence anywhere in the world.

Fantastic news!

Media outlets everywhere are praising you, Africans are congratulating you, everyone who knows you are Malawian talks positively about the developments in your country in terms of free and fair elections and an independent and competent judiciary. You feel proud. Fabulous!

Look! The FT has called the Constitutional Court decision… a victory for African democracy’. (Yes, the same Financial Times with revenues of $500 million). Favourable publicity doesn’t get any better than this, does it? All great, all wonderful stuff.

But let’s not get too excited too quickly here. Let’s not celebrate too much … yet. Ask any honest person who follows politics in Malawi, and they will tell you that while the victory against the fraudulent enterprise that is the Malawi Electoral Commission is one important victory battle in a war of many battles, there is unfinished business and on-going tussles that must be won in order to to clean up the structural rot in Malawi’s public bodies.

As Professor Danwood Chirwa put it here in his brilliant analysis whose intro was “The rearguard action has begun“, some people will fight tooth and nail to resist any meaningful change.

For example, there are Malawians who still think it is okay for a president or a government minister to decide which contractors should be awarded lucrative government contracts?? Then, there is the matter of public appointments; why should the heads of statutory corporations or parastatals still be appointed by the president, under a system that is definitely not merit-based – see [1], [2] for reference?  What about the boards of statutory corporations, shouldn’t their composition also be merit-based, and shouldn’t they be appointed by an independent body? What about public sector reforms. Didn’t the commission heading the initiative say the lack of political will was the reasons why bringing in the reforms had failed, with the UNDP comenting that: “Reforms call for transformation of organisational structures, a merit-based public service, transparent processes and procedures for improved service delivery.” (source: ‘Reforms on deathbed’, Rex Chikoko, The Nation)?

“Reforms call for transformation of organisational structures, a merit-based public service, transparent processes and procedures for improved service delivery.”

There is also the issue of the independence of the graft-busting body – the Anti-corruption Bureau (which in the past has been accused of being partial and having factions controlled by the executive); there is the matter of the independence of the police (who have at times used violence and acted shamefully against Malawians as if they were merely an unruly mob of the ruling party – see [3],[4]); there is the issue of the taxpayer-funded MBC, and how biased and unprofessional it is – see [5],[6]); there is the issue of political advisers, party honchos, strategists and other minions (some who like to call themselves “ana a daddy”) amassing fortunes and large amounts of unexplained wealth…

I could go on and on, and on.

And then there is the issue of the make-up of the Cabinet (which in past administrations, not only Peter Mutharika’s administration, has not reflected the country’s demographics). Wouldn’t it be fit and proper if Malawi’s next Cabinet more accurately reflected the country’s demographics, and was more than just a reflection of the president’s inner circle, party loyalists, cronies and tribal buddies?

Shouldn’t such be a given, that in a 21st century young democracy, one with (unfortunately) deep seated tribal allegiances, we should have a Cabinet that reflects the country’s ethnic make-up?

In any case, how are we to get rid of tribalism, cronyism, regionalism and nepotism in public office in Malawi, if we ignore the problem, and certain ethnic groups continue to be favored whereas other ethnic groups are sidelined and discriminated against when it comes to ministerial appointments, or more generally public appointments? You can’t say you have a genuine interest to get rid of tribalism, cronyism, regionalism and nepotism, but fill your cabinet positions, parastatals and board posts largely with yes-men, people from your village, chiefs, cronies from your region, members of your enthnic cultural association, and family members galore. That can’t possibly be right! Those state bodies can’t possibly excel.

If Malawians are going to fully capitalize on the Constitutional Court’s decision, and clean up the country’s many ills and failings (let’s be honest, there are many) for the benefit of every Malawian, then important undertakings like public appointments, cabinet positions and ambassadorial/ foreign mission postings must not be rewards for patronage or loyalty, but must be transparent merit-based exercises which reflect the country’s demographics and in the best interest of all Malawians.