Beyond floods: 11 things you didn't know about Malawi, the 'warm heart of Africa'

A small country full of big surprises--and a story about a brewery.

MALAWI has been in the news recently because the southern African nation has been hit by severe flooding, said to be the worst the country has ever experienced - so far it has caused displacement of over 170,000 people, while an estimated 116,000 households have lost their crops and livestock. 

It’s a terrible tragedy to afflict this country, fondly referred to as the “warm heart of Africa”, far too often remembered by the challenges it faces as one of the poorest countries in the world, but it’s full of surprises. Here we look at ten fascinating and interesting facts about this small nation:

1. It might not be alone in Africa, but Malawi doesn’t issue national ID cards. Malawians currently use driving licenses, passports, and in some cases voter registration certificates as proof of their citizenship. Those who don’t have these documents are asked to bring any person with a passport or driving license to be a witness. This has proved to be a major challenge for Malawians trying to get loans, for health authorities because foreigners take advantage of free medical services in public hospitals and for campaigners against child trafficking who say a lack of identification is contributing to an increase in trafficking cases. Malawi’s government introduced the National Registration Bureau in 2007 to oversee the process of issuing national identity documents. But eight years since its inception, the bureau has yet to do so. 

2. Malawi has Carlsberg’s only brewery in Africa. Officially opened on December 14, 1968, Carlsberg Malawi Brewery Limited (CMBL) was the first Carlsberg brewery outside Denmark. Located in the area of Makata, it is the only state-of-the-art brewing and beer packaging facility in Malawi and is capable of producing 380,000 hectoliters of beer per year. Today it is the official beer of the Malawi National Football Team and is widely consumed. A bottle of Carlsberg is locally referred to as the “Green”.

3. Malawi was the first country in Africa to grow tea on a commercial scale. Malawi has been producing tea for well over a century and it is the continent’s second largest tea producer after Kenya. The history of tea in Malawi stretches back to 1886 when seeds were taken from the Botanical Garden in Edinburgh to the Church of Scotland Mission in Blantyre and planted in the garden there. One bush, the ancestor of the original tea plantation in Mulanje, still grows at the Mission in Blantyre today. After tobacco, tea is the second biggest export earner for Malawi (some years third to sugar), accounting for 8% of export earnings. 

4. Malawi was the first country in the Southern Africa Development Community region to embrace Structural Adjustment Programmes. In 1981, as a remedy to resuscitate economic growth, Malawi adopted the SAPs which were loans provided by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank that required borrowing countries to implement austerity policies, or conditionalities, in order to obtain them. SAPs were created with the intent of producing long-term economic growth, yet today poverty in Malawi remains widespread, it is a low income country and ranked 170 out of 186 countries surveyed in the 2013 Human Development Index. 

5. Lake Malawi occupies one-fifth of the total area of Malawi which is approximately 11.8 million hectares. Though it is completely landlocked, Malawi is home to this massive body of freshwater measuring some 600 kilometres long and up to 80 kilometres in width; the ninth largest lake in the world. At the northern point of the lake it is incredibly deep, plunging approximately 700m, making it one of the deepest lakes in the world. 

6. Malawians’ first European contact was with the Portuguese. This, even though Malawi was colonised by the British, attaining independence in 1964. They traded ivory, iron and slaves with the Portuguese who in turn brought maize to the region, now a staple in the Malawian diet. 

7. Lake Malawi contains the largest number of fish species of any lake in the world. There are between 500 and 1,000 fish species, and it is home to a vast array of Cichlids, virtually all of which are endemic to the lake. These Cichlids are globally popular as aquarium fish, because of their bright colours. 

8. Home to the Zomba plateau. The Zomba plateau is one of the most unique plateaus in Africa. The great slab rises to 2000m and, even though the city is a two hour drive away, the plateau can be spotted from areas of Blantyre. It has some astounding views and an incredible mix of flora and fauna.  

9. Malawi has a vibrant black market for fuel. Because of transport costs and the poor exchange rate of the Kwacha, fuel prices in Malawi are extremely high. Petrol costs MK856.70 ($1.8) per litre, while diesel costs MK865.90 ($1.88). As a result underground fuel merchants, who now deal quite openly, have cropped up all over the place, selling fuel brought in from Mozambique in jerry cans and empty bottles. 

10. Malawi is the smallest but most densely populated country in the Southern Africa region. The country has a population of about 13 million (as of the 2008 census) and a population density of 139 persons /km2. 

11. The country got its name from its incredible sunsets! The name Malawi comes from Chichewa for flames of fire - because of the incredible sunrises and sunsets that can be seen over Lake Malawi.

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