Economy & Industry

Agriculture is the mainstay

Malawi’s economy revolves around agriculture, which supports well over 80% of the population.


Malawi economy

In this video... Joyce talks about how Malawi is developing – how its food security, roads, buildings and industries are developing; and how the president has a vision for the future.

Maize is grown as the staple food for home consumption. However, tobacco, tea, cotton, coffee and sugar are important for trade. Agricultural produce brings in more than 80% of the country's export earnings.

Tea is Malawi’s second largest export crop and is grown mostly in the southern districts of Thyolo and Mulanje.

Manufacturing in this small landlocked country is minimal. Most industry is based in or around the commercial city of Blantyre in the south.

The tobacco trade

Malawi is one of the top ten producers of tobacco, which accounts for most of Malawi's agricultural export earnings. However, this means that the economy is too dependent on this harvest; a bad-weather year can mean a significant hit in earnings.

Selling tobacco

Tobacco trade

In this video... Porters push trolleys at a major tobacco auction house in Malawi, as bags of tobacco are bought and sold.

Large tobacco buyers also exploit small-scale producers, paying them a poor price for their crop.  This has led to some farmers relying on the use of child labour (which is illegal in Malawi).

An estimated 80,000 children work to harvest the tobacco crop in Malawi. Without protective clothing, they are exposed to the nicotine in tobacco leaves. This causes green tobacco sickness (or nicotine poisoning) which causes headaches, stomach pain, coughing and breathlessness. Children miss important school time and risk failing their exams.

Despite the large-scale business, you see very few Malawians smoking tobacco. An estimated 90% of Malawi's tobacco crop is exported, mostly to the US.

Mining developments

Outside of agriculture, mining plays an increasingly important part in Malawi’s growing economy. Malawi has deposits of uranium, coal and bauxite.

A new uranium mine (Kayelekera) opened in 2009 and is expected to generate around 150 million dollars of revenue each year.

Economic restraints

A man cycling a bike laden with wood

Malawi’s economy has grown by an average of 7% over the last five years. However, there are a number of factors holding back economic development. These include an unreliable supply of electricity, weak staffing in public services and land constraints.

Many farmers are locked into subsistence-style farming on small plots (the average farmer cultivates less than half a hectare of land). And fewer than one in 10 Malawians have access to electricity services.

Over the last decade, farmers have been provided with subsidies for fertiliser and higher-yielding hybrid seeds. This policy has boosted food output. However, this approach may be unaffordable going into the future.  Farmers have also been encouraged to diversify away from tobacco.