For Some Malawi Business Owners, Closer China Ties Has Meant Losing the Shop

Business owners in the southeast African nation say their government has done little to help, to avoid upsetting Beijing
October 6, 2018 Updated: December 25, 2018

BLANTYRE, Malawi—A group of business owners in Malawi’s financial hub may be feeling the side effects of the southeast African nation’s government getting closer to China, with local business owners getting evicted from their places of business in favor of Chinese business owners.

Kiliro Mbisa is one of six business owners in Blantyre, Malawi’s center of finance, who have recently been evicted from a Chinese-owned building they had set up business in.

Kiliro Mbisa, one of the six tenants evicted from a Chinese-owned building in Blantyre, Malawi.
Kiliro Mbisa, one of the six tenants evicted from a Chinese-owned building in Blantyre, Malawi, in her temporary shop where she sells spices, on Oct. 6, 2018. (Charles Pensulo/Special to The Epoch Times)

“The owner of the building duped us into believing that he has sold the building and that the new owner doesn’t want us,” she said. “After we did our research, we noted that the landlord wanted to rent the property to fellow Chinese nationals.”

According to Mbisa, one of the tenants at the premise was Chinese, and to their surprise, he wasn’t given a notice to evict and even ended up getting an additional shop after the six business owners had vacated.

“We went to Ministry of Trade, Competition and Fair Trading Commission, and even the mayor’s office to find a redress, but nothing happened. The ministry said this was a tenancy issue and they couldn’t get involved. The principal secretary of trade and industry said if we can’t compete, then we had to move,” she said.

“We’re fighting for the government to protect us as small and medium enterprises. The way things are going, all these places are going to be occupied by Chinese and Asians,” she added.

According to Timothy Mtambo, executive director at Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), the government could be failing to assist the local businesses due to projects and funding the government is getting from the Chinese regime.

“Foreign direct investments are good, but not all foreign direct foreign investment we’re seeing are good for this country,” said Mtambo, an expert in international corporation and development.

In pursuit of gaining greater geopolitical influence, the Chinese communist regime in recent years has been increasing its presence in Africa on both the economic and military fronts.

‘Very, Very Bad’

Limbe township in southeast Blantyre hosts some of the biggest shops in the urban district. Several business owners in the town who have set up shop in buildings owned by Chinese nationals have found themselves in a situation similar to Mbisa’s.

Chinese-owned businesses grew after Malawi established diplomatic relations with China in 2007, at the cost of its relations with Taiwan. Since then, Chinese have been coming in large numbers.

People walk by shops in Limbe township in Blantyre, Malawi.
People walk by Chinese-owned shops in Limbe township in Blantyre, Malawi, on Oct. 6. (Charles Pensulo/Special to The Epoch Times)

CHRR’s Mtambo described what is happening with the local businesses as “very, very bad.”

“I agree with the people in Limbe because the foreigners already have an advantage. The foreigners should come here to add value, and not do things that locals can do like opening small shops,” he said.

Denis Kalekeni, general secretary of the Malawi Congress of Trade Unions, said while trade in the country is liberalized, fair trade principles should be respected so that small-scale local businesses are protected.

Kalekeni described the move by the Chinese and other Asians evicting local Malawians in preference of their fellow nationals who pay higher rentals as “very unfair” and something the trade union “can’t condone.”

“These are issues that we’ve heard and are not happy with. Right now, we are carrying out investigations on the matter. We want to put it in the strongest terms, that should this practice continue, we will have no option but to march against the perpetrators,” he said.

Meanwhile, Mbisa has found a temporary shop to continue operating her business, though the new place is too small to accommodate all of her fridges and machinery.

“I’m losing millions now. After years in the shop, my business has come to a standstill at a notice of 60 days,” she said.

Mbisa has laid off nine employees, and the other five businesses owners evicted from the building complex have together laid off another 25.

The group of disgruntled business owners is currently seeking permits from the city to hold an event to protest their evictions.