The Land Issue in Malawi and the Case for Reparations


The Land issue is not new in most countries and can be often used to explain the systematic economic inequality that exists in Africa. Colonialism created serious inequality in land ownership and land use and Malawi is not very unique in this predicament. Malawi’s agricultural sector employs about 85% of the workforce and generates 90% of foreign exchange earnings, making it the single most important issue in the Malawian economy. Despite its importance to the Malawian people, land distribution remains very unequal. In Malawi’s Southern region the average family cultivates less than one hectare of land while private estates occupy almost 80% of the arable land. In post independent Malawi, agriculture has been characterized by a two tier system which systematically prioritizes commercial agriculture over peasant farming, something reminiscent of colonial times. During President Kamuzu Banda’s 30 years in office, agriculture production continued under the two tier system much as it had under colonial rule.


Malawi-teaAfter Malawi’s was established as a protectorate in 1891, the British were not able to find any commercially exploitable mineral resources so they concentrated their efforts on agriculture. The settlers were encouraged to focus on large scale export crops when they were given their ‘certificates of claim’ issued on behalf of the British Crown. The British monarch gave these early settlers the option to purchase land that had been acquired from Africans either as leasehold or freehold. Agriculture in Malawi was based on a two tier system in which the British settlers invested cash and used Africans as sources of cheap labor.

Historians give accounts of three individuals who were instrumental in land loss during the early years of the protectorate and are largely responsible for a huge amount of land taken from Africans and used to benefit the British. Eugene Sharrer seized 363,034 acres, Alexander Low Bruce, the son-in-law of David Livingstone and a director of the African Lakes Company, took 176,000 acres, and John Buchanan and his brothers grabbed a further 167,823 acres. They claimed to have purchased lands these lands from African chiefs but at the time, chiefs had no understanding of English concepts of land tenure. The British appointed Harry Johnston, later Sir Harry, as Commissioner and Consul-General of the British Central Africa Protectorate from 1891 accepted these so called agreements as evidence of land sales. He ruled under the premise that any land not currently used by Africans belonged to the Crown under freehold or leasehold titles and it could be granted to Europeans. The problem with his assumption was that many Africans in Malawi at the time practiced rotation and would leave land fallow only for short periods of time for the soil to rejuvenate.

In 1902, the Parliament of the United Kingdom enacted the British Central Africa Order, which provided that English Law would apply generally in the British Central Africa Protectorate, and that the Crown had sovereignty over all the land in the protectorate, which was held by others as its tenants. Customary law had little or no legal status in the early colonial period and little recognition or protection was given to customary land or the communities that used it.

A new system of labor exploitation known as the ‘thangata’ system emerged. Under this system, landowners allocated land for food cultivation in return for labor rent which allowed the worker to reside on the land. This system was essentially a legal form of slavery as workers could be unpaid for long periods of time, at times up to eight months at a time. In 1928, a new Ordinance was issued, known as the Natives on Private Estates which modified the ‘thangata’ system to allow payment of workers in cash, a kind of sharecropping. The modification provided an incentive for African farmers to plant cash crops like tobacco and cotton. The expansion of agriculture in Malawi lured workers from parts of Mozambique who were in search of better conditions.

It was not until, 1990 that changes to agriculture and land ownership began to be reviewed. After 1990, smaller farmers were allowed to grow and market cash crops. After the 1994 elections, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry on Land Reform was formed. The Commission was tasked with establishing the principles for a new land policy that would be more economically efficient, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable. Later, in 2004 a Community-Based Rural Land Development Program was launched in conjunction with the World Bank and other donor support to pilot the use of market mechanisms to help land-short farm households secure larger acreages by purchasing uncultivated and/or underutilized estate land (estimated at 600,000 hectares). This pilot succeeded in its goal of resettling 15,000 farm households, but many small farmers still do not have adequate land.


  • 1877- The African Lakes Corporation plc (ALC) was established as the Livingstonia Central Africa Company by Scottish businessmen to co-operate with missions in what is now Malawi. Despite its original connections with the Free Church of Scotland, it operated its businesses in Africa on a commercial rather than a philanthropic basis. Its businesses in the colonial era included water transport on the lakes and rivers of Central Africa, wholesale and retail trading including the operation of general stores, labor recruitment, landowning and later an automotive business.
  • 1878- It was renamed The African Lakes Company Limited
  • 1893- Its business was transferred to The African Lakes Trading Corporation Limited, a company registered in Scotland
  • 1894- Renamed the African Lakes Corporation Limited
  • 1930s- The company’s shares were acquired by the British South Africa Company (BSAC) which later absorbed its businesses
  • 1982- re-registered as a public limited company named The African Lakes Corporation plc
  • 1980s- The Company acquired several profitable motor dealerships in the United Kingdom but their performance was dismal and it was forced to dispose its UK Motor Group. The Company was successful after this in raising additional capital and acquired further automotive and IT distribution companies, disposed of its hotel group in Malawi and then acquired Africa Online, an Internet Service Provider based in Nairobi. The company focused on three core activities: automotive, IT distribution and internet services in sub-Saharan.
  • 2002- The entire Malawi automotive interests Mandala Ltd (T/A Malital Ltd and Malawi Motors) were sold to the French Group CFAO SA (formerly Compagnie Française de l’Afrique Occidentale)
  • 2003- the company sold its non-internet businesses including the Vizara Rubber Estate in northern Malawi,
  • 2003- delisted from the Nairobi Stock exchange after its shares plummeted and became a private company
  • 2007- the Company sold Africa Online to Telkom South Africa
  • 2013- A group of Scottish investors revived the African Lakes Company Ltd name as a vehicle for Scottish “impact-investment” in Malawian small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).


On the 14th of July, 2015, a local group known as the People’s Land Organization sent a petition to the United Nations Secretary General which summarizes their demands for reparations:

Peoples Land Organization (PLO), an indigenous legal grouping of concerned people in Thyolo and Mulanje, resolved to clear these past mistakes by asking the current colonial estate owners to pay the descendants of the real owners of the land some fee for the use of their land on rent starting from 1914 to the present at a rate of £65 per acre per year. Besides, as all the colonial estate owners of Thyolo and Mulanje used Thangata forced labor of indigenous people to develop their plantations contrary to the International Labor Organization (ILO) regulations, the estate owners were also asked to pay a wage of £6.13 per hour per individual for each person involved in the Thangata system starting from 1914 to 1963. Further to these demands it was seen obligatory that any further expansion of colonial estate infrastructure into the 25, 000 hectares of idle colonial estate land need to be stopped immediately because we the owners of the land need the land now. This idle land is not subject to the proposed land rental charges and should return to us the owners to use it to build houses and plant food crops starting this September 2015.

Land ownership is necessary for black wealth which is why we will continue to document land issues in various African countries and in the diaspora. Through this we hope to shed some light on why systematic poverty exists among black people in Africa and in the African diaspora.

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  1. I really like the way you make us understand history. I hope as Africans we can learn something

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