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News stories coming from back home this week have been very fascinating, hilarious, and infuriating at times. There is this other 89 year-old village chief that is making a living out of other people’s misfortune by selling rainfall – yes natural rainfall! The guy must have some supernatural powers to do that, although I do not trust him. And then there’s there’s this other 32 year-old wife who beats her husband to death because the guy used up 500 Kwacha (about $3.50) of the family income on beer. Poor guy, I wish he had known. But the two stories that angered me were about price hikes: government raising passport fees and one mobile company hiking its tariffs.

I have no problems whatsoever about government raising fees for the services it offers, but this one hike is simply unjustified. The news is that effective immediately, the processing fee for a new passport has been increased by nearly two-fold to K15,100 from K8,000. To make sure that they reap the benefits of the new fee increase, government is calling on all citizens that have passports to have them replaced within 6 months as they have introduced some additional security features on the revised passport. That makes me question what those that are outside the country will do if they cannot get back to Malawi to have their passports replaced within those six months. I think the price hike is highly uncalled for and it is therefore ridiculous. There certainly has to be better ways of raising money for government than charging exorbitant prices for essential services like passports and drivers licenses. It is an abuse of the monopolistic power that government has over these services.

And then there is the story of Zain Malawi, one of the two cellular providers in Malawi, increasing the prices of its airtime. It still baffles me why mobile companies in Malawi are allowed to charge for their airtime in foreign currency when there is a law that prohibits such a malpractice (makes me wonder what the Reserve Bank was established for). Now that the Malawi Kwacha has fallen against the US$, this was always going to happen. In a country that has one of the highest mobile tariff rates in the continent, the last thing consumers would expect is to be asked to pay even more for services that are nearly non-existent. Just recently, customers on the Zain network were unable to make or receive calls, and that was not the first time in as many months. The explanation from their top guru? “Some of your cellphones are not capable of acquiring the signal from our network”. Is that all you could say, really? Is it because Malawians are the most silent of consumer societies in the region? We don’t demand better service for our money, and the companies keep abusing us. In other places, there would be a boycott of Zain’s services, but that would never happen in Malawi. Remember the song by Lucius Banda? Buledi akakwera mtengo, mmalo mogwirizana tonse tikane, ukapeza ena amatama agula malofu asanu (when the price of bread goes up, instead of everyone agreeing to not buy it, some people go and buy 5 loaves at once instead). That is how naive we are as a society, and it hurts nobody but ourselves.

I wish we were as aggressive in demanding value for our money as our colleagues in other countries are. We can no longer afford to lose our hard-earned money on services and products that never are.

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