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One of the Poorest Life Is Not *That* Bad

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  This article is part of the series: Digital Malawi: Developing Hope in the Information Age

Over the last few articles, I kept introducing Malawi as one of the poorest countries in the world. The statement is based on the World Population Review's "Poorest Countries in the World" report, and Malawi is ranked the 10th poorest country in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), according to the World Bank-sourced data. But, what does the 10th poorest life look like?

Imbalance between earning and spending

First and foremost, as of February 2024, Malawi's monthly minimum wage for general workers is 90,000 Malawian Kwacha (MWK) both in rural and urban areas (!). That is, since 1,000 MWK is about 0.59 USD as of writing, we can expect to earn about 53 USD per month in Malawi at minimum. Yes, you read it correctly. It should be noted that a different lower rate may apply for domestic workers, and the World Bank once reported1 that around 80% of the population is relying on agriculture for their livelihoods, occupying more than 60% of total employment. Hence, I would imagine the general population's income stream is fairly inconsistent in practice.

Importantly, the wage standard doesn't mean products and services are cheap in Malawi. For instance, living in Malawi's third largest city, my regular monthly expenditure is around 249,000 MWK (148 USD) per month other than rent2:

  • Utility (water): 20,000 MWK
  • Utility (electricity): 10,000 MWK
  • Mobile data bundle (64 GB): 24,000 MWK
  • Grocery: Up to 10,000 MWK per shopping * 2 times a week * 4 weeks = 80,000 MWK
    • Food items are very much fixed: bread, eggs, oatmeal, vegetables, bananas, beer, and Malawian textured soy protein called "Soya Pieces"
  • Restaurant: About 3,500 MWK per meal * lunch for 5 working days * 4 weeks = 70,000 MWK
  • Social e.g., weekend beer at a local bar: Maximum 10,000 MWK per week (usually less) * 4 weeks = 40,000 MWK
  • Hair cut: 5,000 MWK

meal * A typical lunch looks like this. Small fish and nsima can be anywhere between 1,500 and 3,000 MWK depending on the type of fish and restaurant pricing.

I must admit that I, as a foreign national, am in a privileged position when it comes to spending in Malawi, and many people cannot even afford a bottle of beer. However, I am not a big spender either, compared to my family, colleagues, and friends outside of Malawi. Yet, if I want to maintain my current life in Malawi, I have to earn 3 times more than the minimum wage. Otherwise, I can barely pay utility bills with the lowest possible earnings. Although everyone's situation is different and the prices can vary depending on where you live, I hope the numbers give a sense of the personal finance scene in Malawi.

Inequality and unfairness

For the reasons mentioned above, Malawian's financial condition is generally not good, and you will see a long queue in front of the banks on a payday because everyone urgently needs cash to sustain their life. Some of my friends frequently run out of their money days or weeks before their payday and ask others for loans. In that condition, saving and investing are unrealistic ideas. I am not exaggerating, and Statista's "Economic Inequality - Malawi" report, for example, shows 72.68% of the population in Malawi are predicted to earn less than 2.15 USD per day in 2024.

As the economic inequality report highlights, Malawi's forecasted Gini coefficient is 0.39 in 2024 (0.31 in Japan, 0.33 in Canada). It implies not everyone is living in the same "10th poorest" condition, and domestic inequality does exist between rich and poor. In particular, those whom I mainly interact with in my day-to-day life are office and service workers, and they seem to be easily earning a couple of hundred USD per month at minimum, which is several times more than how much the majority of the population earn. Furthermore, regardless of their nationality, members of international organizations generally earn even more. Thus, the gap in an individual's financial status can be noticeable in the country's yet-to-be-grown economy.

In the ICT domain, a single web or mobile development project can be offered at around 500 USD by Malawian tech businesses, excluding all the running costs. To give an example, I recently received an Android application development order from a Malawian organization3, and the invoice was 600 USD for a 6-month part-time commitment from designing and development to testing and deployment; although the number, which is roughly 100 USD per month from a single client, is a good pay considering the Malawian standard, it is obvious that the domestic organizations cannot pay the amount that the similar businesses in US, Canada, or Japan normally charge. Meanwhile, scam-like poor-quality services hinder the industry from growing healthily and making role models/success stories. We discussed the point in Is Computer Education Always Good?, and I doubt the tech sector is practicing professionalism under fair pricing.

Finding a hope: It's not that bad, actually.

By the way, I'm giving numbers in USD to make them intuitive for the primary readers, but Malawians are of course paid in their local currency. And this point surfaces the key monetary challenge among Malawians: devaluation. In early November 2023, the central bank of Malawi announced a devaluation of MWK 44% against USD to correct the supply-demand imbalance in the currency market4. This means that the minimum wage at that moment (50,000 MWK) was 43 USD per month before the devaluation (1 MWK = 0.00086 USD), but the amount suddenly became worth less than 30 USD within a day; in my previous article published two months before the devaluation, I noted that "1 USD = 1,000 Malawian Kwacha is usually a reasonable estimate," but this statement is no longer valid. With the devalued currency, prices at restaurants and grocery stores have increased, yet I see the wage standard hasn't fully caught up in the local labor market. Therefore, the 10th poorest life has become even tougher over the last few months.

That being said, the world as a whole is surely getting better, and the poor life is not as bad as our stereotypes and news articles might illustrate. Even in Malawi, I witnessed that access to primary/secondary education, utilities, and medical services is becoming available for wider populations, especially in established towns and communities. Now, I'm more convinced by the arguments the book "Factfulness" has made, and I am not surprised to see all the "good news" the book visualized. Life expectancy, for example, is now over 60 in many poorest countries as depicted in the chart below, thanks to the recent development in these countries.

Moreover, I can see a better future for the country in Malawian's strong desire to earn more and get rich. People, especially the younger generation, look so hungry to take whatever chances they can find, and they are constantly seeking a way to acquire marketable skills, unlock socio-economic opportunities, and achieve financial independence. This attitude is also represented by a Malawian book I recently encountered, "Making Your First Million" by Henry Kachaje. The book is about how to earn one million MWK (600 USD), not a million dollars, from your own business, and it is indeed a big, ambitious amount of money many Malawians want so badly; it's about the minimum wage * 12 months without spending any of the income.


Practically speaking, the essential challenges to leveling up Malawian's financial condition are in HOWs. In theory, if you are already earning some thousand MWK, you can also earn millions as long as you follow the right steps; here, equipping people with the right mindset, knowledge, and planning and execution practices is the hardest part.

Although the digestible insights told by motivational speakers like the book author may help, the narratives seem to be a little over-simplified and lack details in many cases. For instance, tax and cost implications are missing, and the book says if you sell a bunch of bananas for 1,500 MWK, it'll be a gain of 1,500 MWK. Moreover, even though there is a tiny section about "Learning from mistakes," the importance of failures and the power of iterations is not emphasized enough. In reality, it’s not about having a single good idea and making a big bang. Rather, success in personal finance, business, and the country's economy at large should be derived from long-term thinking and continuous optimization. In this regard, investing in quality over quantity is also something I rarely see among Malawians, and the book also didn't speak much.

Therefore, from the perception against one million MWK to mindset formation relying largely on biblical quotes to the simplicity of economic activities, the book nicely drew the issues and potentials of the Malawian economy, though I'm not sure if it's the author's intention. After all, it was simply interesting for me to read such locally-optimized arguments while physically situating myself in the country. There are a lot of things that the data doesn't tell, and my limited but tangible experiences in the country have become valuable complements to the data-driven insights.

1. World Bank's country profile and dataset on Employment in agriculture (% of total employment) (modeled ILO estimate) - Malawi.
2. Rent is exceptionally expensive for me due to the safety regulations from my employer. Ordinary people can find a house for less than 100 USD per month and often share a property with family members or friends.
3. The order is from the Malawian organization to my Canadian self-employed business, which will end up with a foreign income upon tax filing. I am using my spare time to develop the application.
4. Internationally, the growing concerns about financial sustainability forced South African Airways to suspend their operations from/to Malawi. This is very sad news for me, who primarily use Star Alliance flights and love to fly in to and out from Malawi more frequently.
  This article is part of the series: Digital Malawi: Developing Hope in the Information Age



Business Life & Work

  See also

Relativize Malawi, and Rethink Their Contexts
Definition, Role, and Current Status of Digital Literacy in Malawi #LiteracyDay
Starting Field Study on How Information Flows in Malawi


Last updated: 2024-02-26

  Author: Takuya Kitazawa

Takuya Kitazawa is a freelance software developer, previously working at a Big Tech and Silicon Valley-based start-up company where he wore multiple hats as a full-stack software developer, machine learning engineer, data scientist, and product manager. At the intersection of technological and social aspects of data-driven applications, he is passionate about promoting the ethical use of information technologies through his mentoring, business consultation, and public engagement activities. See CV for more information, or contact at [email protected].

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