When he was 19, Leo Benito Major from Sandama Village, Traditional Authority (T/A) Nsabwe in Thyolo travel led about 354 kilometres to Lilongwe in search for better education opportunities and improve his livelihood.
However, for other reasons, he was unable to complete his studies and realise his dream.
Years later, Major found gold in vehicle cleaning business which has seen him educate his three children, two of whom are still in secondary school. He also provides for his family.
“A friend invited me to this venture in 2015. I came and I joined few others who were already cleaning vehicles. Roughly, we get paid K1 500 per car,” he says.
However, Major worries that he cannot fully support members of his extended family nor save for rainy days because he does not earn much.
“Income varies because on a good day I can clean more than five cars, but at times I only clean three. But from what I earn, I can afford to buy food and other household supplies,” he explains, adding that his biggest challenge is that some customers defer payments, a development that affects his income.
Like Major, Joseph Gandali, a father of four counts 14 years since when he started cleaning vehicles for a living, starting off as a piece worker at GIZ.
At first, he had a business, but it was slow, and he had to make another plan.
Now he also pays rentals and feed his family from what he earns from cleaning vehicles.
“We rely on people like you to bring your vehicles; and if you do not then you deny our families of food,” Gandali says.
Besides all that, he says that he would be proud if he can buy a piece of land to build a house.
However, Gandali is pleased that he once saved some funds and gave his wife to start up a small business to supplement the income, and she sells groundnut flour.
While many people s t r u g g l e t o f i n d employment with Malawi having one of the highest unemployment rates mainly among the youth, Major and Gandali have found ways of employing themselves to earn a living.
In an interview, local labour expert Robert Mkwezalamba attributed t h e h i g h l e v e l s o f unemployment to several factors, including the school curricula.
He argued that the school curriculum was developed focusing on making people farmers by understanding basic things.
The other challenge, Mkwezalamba said, is that Malawi adopted the International Labour Organisation (ILO) standard of measuring the rate of employment and unemployment.
According to those standards, if someone did piece work for less than an hour in a week and got paid, they are counted as employed.
He argued that this is thereason employment r a t e s i n d i c a t e t h a t Malawi has three percent unemployment rate, meaning that 97 people in every 100 are employed.
However, as labour r i g h t s a d v o c a t e s ,Mkwezalamba said they have their own measure and that in their view, unemployment in Malawi is more than 60 percent.
He also noted that while most people in the country are employed, they are working in precarious conditions; with the majority being poorly paid and working in poor employment standards.
The labour expert also argued that for most people, the salaries are merely sustaining them until future employment because they need the experience; while for others, employment is just a means for getting loans.
“MCTU [Ma l a w i Congress of Trade Unions] did a study in 2014 which found that 60 percent of a person’s salary is spent on repaying loans and have to work with the remaining 40 percent for all household needs and transportation. That is why we remain poor as Malawians, because our salaries cannot move us from poverty,” Mkwezalamba argued.
To get out of this maze, he identified the need for a clear mapping exercise to understand what skills Malawians have and what services or jobs are required on the market.
“That would be the starting point. And then we should up our standards increasing the minimum wage to get it to a level which allows people to have better livelihoods. As a nation, we need to adopt a living wage as opposed to minimum wage,” he said.
Mkwezalamba also blamed government for training people and leaving them in the cold.
He thus advocated for the need to give people technical and vocational training that can help them to ably compete with other best trained workmen.
However, in her defence, Minister of Labour, Skills and Innovation Martha Lunji Mhone Chanjo stated that issues of employment are cross cutting and that it is not the role of government alone to create employment.
But she stated that government is doing what it can to create a conducive environment for businesses to thrive and create employment.
“ F o r i n s t a n c e , government has allocated funds for electricity at Kam’mwamba, a coal fired power plant which will generate 1 000 megawatts of electricity, to attract investors who will in turn employ people,” said Chanjo.
The minister further cited that the ministry of labour has the task of absorbing the unemployed youth and other people i n t o g o v e r n m e n t workforce under the internship programme as a way of helping the youth to acquire some experience and be marketable.
She added that there are other government projects including the public works programme, greenbelt initiative and others that also create employment.
Chanjo also pointed out that government is creating an enabling environment for people to employ themselves.
“People walk long distances to buy things like door frames which will be produced by local artisans if they open workshops. That way they would also employ others and create jobs,” she said