The economy of Malawi is predominantly agricultural, with about 90% of the population living in rural areas. The landlocked country in south central Africa ranks among the world's least developed countries. In 2013, agriculture accounted for 27% of GDP[2] and about 80% of export revenue. The economy depends on substantial inflows of economic assistance from the IMF, the World Bank, and individual donor nations. The government faces strong challenges: to spur exports, to improve educational and health facilities, to face up to environmental problems of deforestation and erosion, and to deal with the rapidly growing problem of HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Malawi was ranked the 118th-safest investment destination in the world in the March 2011 Euromoney Country Risk rankings.[3]


In 2013, agriculture accounted for 27% of GDP, over 80% of the labour force and about 80% of all exports. Malawi's most important export crop is tobacco, which accounted for half (50%) of export revenue in 2012.[4] In 2000, the country was the tenth-largest producer in the world (see table). The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates the following production of unprocessed tobacco by country in 2009 (figures are in thousands of tonnes.)[5]

Country Production in thousands of tonnes
China 3,067.9
Brazil 863
India 620
United States 373.1
Malawi 208.1
Indonesia 181.3
Argentina 135.5
Italy 119.1
Pakistan 105
Zimbabwe 96.3

The country's heavy reliance on tobacco places a heavy burden on the economy as world prices decline and the international community increases pressure to limit tobacco production. Malawi's dependence on tobacco is growing, with the product jumping from 53% to 70% of export revenues between 2007 and 2008.[6][7]

A Malawi tea estate

The country also relies heavily on tea, sugarcane and coffee, with these three plus tobacco making up more than 90% of Malawi's export revenue. Tea was first introduced in 1878. Most of it is grown in Mulanje and Thyolo. Other crops include cotton, corn, potatoes, sorghum, cattle and goats. Tobacco and sugar processing are notable secondary industries.

Traditionally Malawi has been self-sufficient in its staple food, maize (corn), and during the 1980s it exported substantial quantities to its drought-stricken neighbors. Nearly 90% of the population engages in subsistence farming. Smallholder farmers produce a variety of crops, including maize, beans, rice, cassava, tobacco, and groundnuts (peanuts). Financial wealth is generally concentrated in the hands of a small elite. Malawi's manufacturing industries are situated around the city of Blantyre.

Lake Malawi and Lake Chilwa provide most of the fish for the region. For many Malawians, fish is the most important source of proteins. Dried fish is not only consumed locally, but also exported to neighboring countries. Most fishing is done on small scale by hand. However, Maldeco Fisheries owns several commercial fishing boats and operates fish farms in the southern part of Lake Malawi.

Dried fish on Likoma Island

Malawi has few exploitable mineral resources. A South-African Australian consortium exploits uranium at a mine near Karonga. Coal is being extracted in Mzimba District. Malawi's economic reliance on the export of agricultural commodities renders it particularly vulnerable to external shocks such as declining terms of trade and drought. High transport costs, which can comprise over 30% of its total import bill, constitute a serious impediment to economic development and trade. Malawi must import all its fuel products. Other challenges include a paucity of skilled labor, difficulty in obtaining expatriate employment permits, bureaucratic red tape, corruption, and inadequate and deteriorating road, electricity, water, and telecommunications infrastructure which hinder economic development in Malawi. However, recent government initiatives targeting improvements in the road infrastructure, together with private sector participation in railroad and telecommunications, have begun to render the investment environment more attractive.

Roadside vendor in Blantyre

The following are Malawi's top 20 agricultural production values and volumes for 2009. (Unofficial figures derived from FAO statistics) [5]

Commodity Production in International dollars (1000) Production in tonnes FAO source
Maize 462,330 3,582,500
Casava 404,764 3,823,240
Tobacco 331,542 208,155
Groundnuts 116,638 275,176
Bananas (excluding plantains) 95,152 400,000 F
Sugar cane 82,093 2,500,000 F
Indigenous cattle meat 80,688 0
Pigeon peas 80,274 184,156
Beans, dry 75,706 164,712
Fresh fruit 74,456 213,321 Im
Plantains 72,634 351,812 Im
Indigenous pig meat 68,788 0
Tea 55,895 52,559 P
Indigenous goat meat 53,512 0
Mangoes, mangosteens and guavas 49,527 82,659 Im
Cotton lint 39,017 27,300 F
Paddy rice 36,896 135,988
Fresh vegetables 30,530 162,012 Im
Indigenous chicken meat 25,713 0
Cow peas 18,073 72,082

Key: F : FAO estimate, Im: FAO data based on imputation methodology, P : Provisional official data


In 2013, Malawi's manufacturing sector contributed 10.7% of GDP.[2] The main industries are food processing, construction, consumer goods, cement, fertilizer, ginning, furniture production and cigarette production.

The government's attempts to diversify the agriculture sector and move up the global value chain have been seriously constrained by poor infrastructure, an inadequately trained work force and a weak business climate. In order to help companies adopt innovative practices and technologies, the National Export Strategy adopted in 2013 affords companies greater access to the outcome of international research and better information about available technologies; it also helps companies to obtain grants to invest in such technologies from sources such as the country’s Export Development Fund and the Malawi Innovation Challenge Fund. In parallel, the government has raised its investment in research and development to 1% of GDP.

Food and beverages

Most fruits and vegetables are exported raw, while processed food is imported mainly from South Africa. Carlsberg opened its first brewery outside of Denmark in Blantyre in 1965. The brewery also bottles Coca-Cola products under licence. A mango processing plant for the export of fruit concentrate opened in Salima in 2013. Universal Industries operates several food factories in Blantyre, where it produces sweets, crisps, biscuits, milk powder, soy products and baby food. Coffee and tea are processed by half a dozen of different companies in the regions of Thyolo, Mulanje and around Mzuzu.

Pharmaceutical companies

Malawi has four pharmaceutical companies. They manufacture a limited range of drugs, particularly those that are in great demand on the local market.[8] These are Pharmanova Ltd.,[8] which is the biggest pharmaceutical manufacturer in Malawi, followed by SADM, Malawi Pharmacies (Pharmaceuticals Limited) and Kentam Products Limited.[8]


Lady carrying a solar panel.

Large man-made pine tree forests are located in the Viphya Mountains, around Mulanje and Zomba. Timber production for building materials and furniture is an important industry for these regions. However, most areas in Malawi suffer from deforestation due to illegal logging for charcoal production and the use of firewood.


Malawi's sole power supplier is the state owned Electricity Supply Commission of Malawi (ESCOM), which generates almost all its power from hydroelectric plants along the Shire River. The installed is approximately 351MW.[9] About 12% of the country's population has access to electricity, according to 2014 World Bank figures.[10]

The country has been suffering from intermittent power outages as a result of an ongoing drought that has halved power output as water levels of the Shire river dropped significantly.[11] The river usually generates 300MW of electricity, accounting for 98% of Malawi's total supply. However, the drought reduced that capacity to 160MW, according to ESCOM.[11]


The service sector accounts for 51.7% of Malawi's national GDP. Notable industries are tourism, retail, transport, education, health services, telecommunication and the banking sector. The Government of Malawi holds shares in many important companies, such as Malawian Airlines (51%) and Press Corporation Limited. Press Corporation Ltd. is the country's biggest company, with subsidiaries in the tobacco, banking, sugar, fishing, ethanol production, steel production, retail, telecommunication and petrol sectors.

International support

Malawi has undertaken economic structural adjustment programs supported by the World Bank (IBRD), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other donors since 1981. Broad reform objectives include stimulation of private sector activity and participation through the elimination of price controls and industrial licensing, liberalization of trade and foreign exchange, rationalization of taxes, privatization of state-owned enterprises, and civil service reform. Malawi qualified for Heavily Indebted Poor Country (HIPC) debt relief and is in the process of refining its poverty reduction strategy.

Real GDP grew by 3.6% in 1999 and 2.1% in 2000. The government's monetary policy has been expansionary, and the average annual inflation has hovered around 30% in 2000 and 2001, keeping discount and commercial bank rates high (the discount rate was 47% in December 2000). In the second half of 2001, the Kwacha strengthened sharply against the U.S. dollar, moving from 80 to 60.

Malawi has bilateral trade agreements with its two major trading partners, South Africa and Zimbabwe, both of which allow duty-free entry of Malawian products into their countries. The government faces challenges such as the improvement of Malawi's educational and health facilities — particularly important because of the rising rates of HIV/AIDS — and environmental problems including deforestation, erosion, and overworked soils.

Former President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi spoke about the country's recent unilateral agricultural reforms at the World Economic Forum on Africa at the United Nations, September 2008.

Move towards economic independence

In 2006, in response to disastrously low agricultural harvests, Malawi, through an initiative by the late President Bingu Mutharika, an economist by profession, began a program of fertilizer subsidies that were designed to re-energize the land and boost crop production. It has been reported that this program, championed by the country's president, is radically improving Malawi's agriculture, and causing Malawi to become a net exporter of food to nearby countries.[12]

Economic grievances though took a downward slide during Mutharika's second term. Economic grievances were a catalyst that resulted in the 2011 economic protests in Malawi in July.

Economic indicators

[citation needed]

GDP: purchasing power parity - $15.02 billion (2013 est.)

Interest rates advertised by Malawi Savings Bank in Nchalo, Malawi on 30 September 2008
Exchange rates advertised by a currency trader in Lilongwe on 7 October 2008
Reserve Bank of Malawi Mzuzu Branch under construction in Mzuzu, a fast-growing city. July 2008

GDP - real growth rate: 6.2% (2015 est.)

GDP - per capita: purchasing power parity - $900 (2014 est.)

GDP - composition by sector:
agriculture: 29.4%
industry: 18.9%
services: 51.7% (2006 est.)

Population below poverty line: 53% (2004 est.)

Household income or consumption by percentage share:
lowest 10%: 3%
highest 10%: 31,9% (2004)

Distribution of Family Income-Gini Index 39 (2004)

Inflation rate (consumer prices): 23% (2014 est.)

Labor force: 5.747 million (2007 est.)

Labor force - by occupation: agriculture 90%, industry and services 10% (2003 est.)

Unemployment rate: NA%

revenues: $1.347 billion (2013 est.)
expenditures: $1.4 billion (2013 est.)

Public Debt 50.8% of GDP (2013 est.)

Industries: tobacco, tea, sugar, sawmill products, cement, consumer goods, cotton, consumer goods, uranium and coal mining

Industrial production growth rate: 2.8% (2013 est.)

Electricity - production: 1.973 billion kWh (2010 est.)

Electricity - production by source:
fossil fuel: 2.39%
hydro: 97.61%
nuclear: 0%
other: 0% (1998)

Electricity - consumption: 1.835 billion kWh (2010 est.)

Electricity - exports: 0 kWh (2005)

Electricity - imports: 0 kWh (2005)

Oil Production 0 bbl/d (0 m3/d) (2003 est.)

Oil Consumption 5,500 bbl/d (870 m3/d) (2004 est.)

Agriculture - products: tobacco, sugar cane, cotton, tea, maize, potatoes, cassava (tapioca), sorghum, pulses; cattle, goats

Exports: $1.427 billion (2013 est.)

Exports - commodities: tobacco, tea, sugar, cotton, coffee, peanuts, wood products, apparel, uranium and its compounds

Exports - partners: Canada 10.6%, Zimbabwe 9.3%, Germany 7.3%, South Africa 6.6%, Russia 6.5%, US 6.1%, China 4.2% (2012)

Imports: $2.42 billion (2013 est.)

Imports - commodities: food, petroleum products, semimanufactures, consumer goods, transportation equipment

Imports - partners: South Africa 27%, China 16.6%, India 8.7%, Zambia 8.5%, Tanzania 5.1%, US 4.3% (2012)

Current account balance - $280.1 million (2013 est.)

Debt - external: $1.556 billion (31 December 2013 est.)

Economic aid - recipient:

$575.3 million (2005)

Foreign direct investment - inflow $129.5 million (2014)

Currency: 1 Malawian kwacha (MK) = 100 tambala

Exchange rates: Malawian kwachas per US dollar -730.00 (20/June/2016), 460.00 (20/Jan/2015), 360.00 (6/Feb/2013), 165.961 (1/Sep/2011), 145.179 (2009), 135.96 (2006), 108.894 (2005), 108.898 (2004), 97.433 (2003), 76.687 (2002)

Fiscal year: 1 July - 30 June

See also


  1. ^ "Ease of Doing Business in Malawi". Doingbusiness.org. Retrieved 2017-01-24. 
  2. ^ a b "World Bank's World Development Indicators". World Bank. April 2015. 
  3. ^ "Euromoney Country Risk". Euromoney Country Risk. Euromoney Institutional Investor PLC. Retrieved 15 August 2011. 
  4. ^ African Economic Outlook. African Development Bank, Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and United Nations Development Programme. 2014. 
  5. ^ a b [1]
  6. ^ CIA World Factbook
  7. ^ J. Tyler Dickovick, Africa 2008, 43rd edition, Harpers Ferry, WV: Stryker-Post Publications, 2008. p. 278
  8. ^ a b c http://www.who.int/hiv/amds/countries/mwi_SurveyUseTRIPs.pdf
  9. ^ "Malawi hit by blackout as falling dam levels drain hydropower". Reuters. 8 December 2017. Retrieved 8 December 2017. 
  10. ^ "Access to electricity (% of population) Data". data.worldbank.org. Retrieved 2017-12-08. 
  11. ^ a b France-Presse, Agence (2017-12-08). "Malawi suffers blackouts as drought exposes 98% reliance on hydro power". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2017-12-08. 
  12. ^ Dugger, Celia W. (December 2, 2007). "Ending Famine, Simply by Ignoring the multilateral organisation 'Experts'". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-08-05. 

 This article incorporates public domain material from the CIA World Factbook website https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/index.html.

Further reading

  • Anthony and Doreen Young, A Geography of Malawi, Second edition. Evans Brothers, Limited, London (1978) ISBN 0-237-50296-8

External links