I first went to Malawi almost 16 years ago. There has been significant change over those years, notably in the emergence of a middle class and evident physical progress in urban areas.
Still, I wonder. When we look at what economists call “the macros”, it takes our breath away. Inflation is still lousy, exchange rates have been terrible, national debt is significant, international borrowing from the private sector is impossible and bank interest rates make investment in social entrepreneurship unlikely. There are recent signs of better days – exchange rates are leveling and a lower price for oil can help.
Amidst this macroeconomic turmoil, and following on a serious government corruption scandal several years back, I am more optimistic about Malawi’s future than ever. Why?
We emphasize measurement of social impact in all that we do, yet my optimism is not yet grounded in traditional data. Instead, years on the ground in Malawi and FTI's operation of our DELabs have convinced me that there is a profound change in social psychology going on that is vastly more important than traditional measures of progress.
Perhaps that change cannot really be measured, but I am convinced that it is both real and profound. Years back, even when speaking with college students and faculty, pessimism ruled. Malawi would continue to be poor, donors would always be essential to survival.
No more. I believe that the spread of connectivity, notably the internet and cellular service, has had a wildly transformational effect on the way people think. Take charge attitudes are in the air, startups of all flavors are being built, woman are taking the lead, traditional overseas development assistance warrants less respect among the populace and there is a palpable excitement about building a country.
Problems will remain for a long time, and the "M-1 economy" -- if that is what we might call the urban economies linked by the main highway -- will advance economically far quicker than rural areas. That is worrisome for many reasons, but it is also a challenge that Flame Tree seeks to address.
We do so in partnership with great Malawians, educators, and development entrepreneurs who are smart, patriotic in healthy ways, highly interconnected, optimistic, energetic and daring.
It is a total pleasure to work in this environment at this crucial time. We feel privileged.