Ndirande Wood Carvers: Sustainable Business in Malawi
Ndirande is a sprawling community built up alongside Ndirande Mountain in Blantyre, Malawi. Most residents of Ndirande came from rural areas to take advantage of work opportunities in and around Blantyre. Originally a government owned plot of land, squatters have turned the area into one of the most busy and productive regions of the country. Residents are still widely poor, crime is common and population density here is probably among the highest in the world, but the rapid and unplanned urbanization of the area has created what I think to be one of the most exciting areas of the planet.
Residents of Ndirande first obtained work in factories and the industrial trades in a nearby section of Blantyre occupied by larger manufacturing operations. The proximity of Ndirande mountain to the industrial areas gave workers the freedom to walk to work and was close enough to be convenient for shift workers, who often had to commute to work at night. When jobs dried up and consolidated, workers took their new-found skills and started their own workshops and small manufacturing operations. The area produces vast amounts of furniture, iron building materials, steel buckets, household items, charcoal and food products. Items fabricated out of steel and iron are made completely out of scavenged and recycled materials, mostly out of scrapped automobiles and building frames. The developed world is the first port of call for manufactured automobiles. From there, cars and other items trickle down through the world until they reach areas like Ndirande, where they are given new life.
Around this burgeoning and locally driven small manufacturing sector has arisen a vast sector of stands which sell scavenged hardware items and tools, scavenged auto parts, and movie theater district, a bar and entertainment district and even book stores and informal schools. There is a vast market place that sells used clothing from the United States, school supplies, household goods, foods, produce and anything else you can think of. Ndirande is a testament to the ingenuity of humans faced with few options for survival. It is 100% home grown, completely unregulated, unplanned, but spontaneously has risen to provide the same services that any large urban area around the world does. Most of all, it is a sustainable internal economy that is essential to Malawi’s survival, a once squatter community which has become an engine in the machine of a struggling developing country.
Whenever I’m in Malawi, I make sure to patronize Ndirande Wood Carvers. Hamilton and his staff of 20 produce fantastic hand carved goods out of local and legally obtained woods and sell them in Malawi and around the world. Recently, I had the welcome opportunity to visti Hamilton’s shop and see first hand how his operation works. Hamilton runs his business without electricity, working under a grass roof in the open air. Woods are hand cut from local forests and brought to his workshop. A small wood fired oven fires the wood before carving. From there workers toil (barefoot!) to rough in items before fine finishing and sanding. Carvings are sanded by a pair of guys in a neighboring building and eventually stained and finished for sale.
All of the work is done without any power or gasoline powered equipment. Incredibly, tools are made in house from recycled auto parts and discarded files. Hamilton told me that he get bad wheel bearings from local shops, heats them up and unrolls them, then hammers and sharpens them into chisels. Saws are made from discarded files. He claims that the advantage to making his own tools is that they can be retooled and reused at any time. Whereas store bought saws are thin and have to be thrown out, Hamilton’s saws are thick enough to allow resharpening at any time. Honestly, I was blown away.
Hamilton started Ndirande Wood Carvers on nothing. He would take chunks of wood and carve goods out and sell them to tourists. Reinvesting everything he made, he was able to grow the business, start hiring and training help and increase his overall output and sales potential. Through his efforts over the past 20 years, he has put all 10 of his siblings through school, employed more than 20 people and put all of their children through school. In addition, he trains the handicapped to make brooms that they can sell to local residents. Hamilton told me that he’d probably be an extremely wealthy man had he not taken responsibility for his siblings and treated his workers so well, but that the benefits to the community far outweigh whatever material gains he may have foregone. Regardless, the man does not live like a pauper and he proudly showed me his house that he built for himself and his siblings.
Hamilton’s business model is an absolute inspiration. Unlike traditional capitalist models of self-interested financial gain, Hamilton’s model is entirely community based. The goal of the business is to create a source of livlihood for the long term health of the entire community. It is a truly Malawian model, create by Malawians, for Malawians with little assistance from western advice. Because of this, it is sustainable, and the prioritization of long term community benefits over short term individual gains could stand as an example for American businesses as well. It is through the efforts and ingenuity of amazing people like Hamilton, that Africa will rise in the next century. As Hamilton put it, “from zero, the only place to go is up.”