My dad's comfort zone is thinking. He is brilliant at looking at a situation and coming up with a completely new solution to it. He would never say it but he went from village boy to one of Malawi's first independent millionaires in an environment where the government hated his family. So much so that in his initial years of business until 1994 he operated as Mark Phiri (Phiri being his tribe name) rather than as Mark Katsonga (his actual surname) for fear that the government may persecute him for being his father's son. His father was a former political activist.
Anyhow, on many occasions the University of Malawi invited him to speak to students to tell his story but he always refused because the idea of public speaking just made him uncomfortable. Personally, I think he doesn't even realize how brilliant he really is and that added to his discomfort.
I am as enthralled by my dad's brilliance as the next person so in July 2010 as we took a long drive to Neno village with my then boyfriend Harry I asked him to tell me his story. Harry was sat in front with the driver, I was sat in the back seat with my dad.
I forgot about these recordings until today but I am so glad I have them. The great relationship we have really comes through and I am uploading these recordings as much for myself as for everyone else; I know I will relisten to them again and again if they are online.
In life, money comes and goes but no one can take away past achievements or the life experiences that have made you, you!
Episode 1 (roughly 45 minutes)
Early years to Police
Business 1 (aged 11) - Kachasu - a business ran with his mum and siblings.
Business 2 (aged 12/13) - Zitumbuwa - his first independent business.
Business 3 (aged 14/16) - vegetable growing and selling - his second independent business.
Episode 2 (Roughly 50 Minutes)
Basically, my dad was walking about with a friend and his friend saw a job ad for police recruits. He asked my dad to accompany him to inquire about the job. When they entered the police station the officer on duty laughed at the guy and said he was too short but that his friend (my dad) looked about the right height.
My dad had no ambitions to be in the police but when he told his family about the opportunity they essentially forced him to do it because he needed a job. He decided he would do it for 6 months before moving on but on his first day he discovered that as soon as he was sworn in he was committed for four years.
After lunch he pretended to be sick to buy himself time - that cracked me up. It bought him a month of time because the ceremony was only held once a month on the 5th of the month.
His uncle gave him a right bollocking for messing about so he went to the village to tell his mum so she could back his decision not to join. Unfortunately, he told her the story in front of another villager who said - "Ntchito imeneyo ndi yabwino, posachedwa pano akhala kopulo" (That's a great job, very soon he'll be a corporal). His mother was sold. My dad cried tears as he felt sorry for himself!
In this episode he also reveals what an astute saver he was. He received 18 kwacha per month in the police: Mwk5 was spent on foods that don't rot (sugar etc.), Mwk5 was sent to his mum in the village to help her with household items, Mwk5 was banked to fund the education of his siblings and Mwk3 was his pocket money.
Over the four years in the police his salary grew to Mwk4.
He says some of his fellow police officers would borrow so much money through salary advances that at the end of some months their salary was negative but he stayed disciplined. He did not go to the staff tuck shop even once in four years.
He still had the business bug and was operating a fruit business as a sideline whilst he was a policeman although that was not allowed. He got caught a mere 6 months before 4 years was up and was punished by being made to become a uniformed police officer after being in his civilian clothing for a long time. It didn't sit well with him and added to his reasons not to renew his contract with the police a few months later. I say it was fate.
For about a period of 3 months my dad worked as houseboy for a white man for a salary of Gbp3 - about Mwk6.
Dad became a salesman for SoBo after leaving the police. From a salary of Mwk24 he started earning Mwk56 then Mwk65 once he was confirmed plus sales commission. He would earn over Mwk200 in some months because he was so good at selling.
At around the time he had about Mwk2,000 in savings an incident occurred where he was being forced to go to work in Chikwawa but he didn't want to go there because he had contracted Malaria on a recent stint there to the point of being hospitalized. He quit the job.
Episode 3 (Roughly 35 Minutes)
My dad decided to realize his life-long ambition of furthering his education. He bought a one-way ticket to Zimbabwe for Mwk39. On arrival, a kind Malawian stranger that he had met on the flight allowed him to stay with him for the night.
When he got to his college he was shocked by the living conditions. Four men shared a room and slept on mats (mphasa) with limited amenities. Now that he had worked for a while and had lived better than this throughout his time in the police and as a salesman it just felt horrid but it was all he could afford.
As fate had it he had the address of an uncle in Zimbabwe - the man had married his mother's youngest sister but they had never met before. He visited him very early one morning (before 7 a.m.) to introduce himself. After he told his uncle where he was staying and his uncle told him it wasn't a good place; he instructed him to collect his luggage and come to live with him.
His uncle wasn't rich either; in fact he had to share his room with my dad to accommodate him. His wife was stuck in Malawi at this time so he was essentially just living with his daughter. Living with his uncle allowed my dad to take even more courses at his college because he saved money by not having to pay his uncle rent.
Relations between whites and blacks in Zimbabwe were not as friendly as they were in Malawi. My dad went to Zim on a tourist visa and after 3 months had a lot of trouble with the Zimbabwean authorities. Ultimately, they gave him a "stupor" which basically required him NOT to live in any Zimbabwean town; he was relegated to the village...
Dad returned from Zimbabwe in the late 1970s with his diplomas and secured a job at Lever Brothers, now Unilever.
Whilst there, after work he ran a business called "International Trade Contact" in which he got the contact details of various suppliers and enabled people to fulfill purchase orders.
After that in 1981 he started a tailoring business. He invested Mwk1,500 in the business and hired a tailor to sew and someone he knew to run the operations/sales. He later discovered that the competition was extremely stiff so 1981 and 1982 were very tough for the business.
By 1982 the business had assets of Mwk5,000 and loans of Mwk12,000. He decided to sell up.
After putting an ad in the paper he was surprised to get 12 offers, he hadn't expected to get any. Incidentally, because the Government had reserved tailoring businesses for Malawians there was huge demand from Indians for tailoring businesses that had licenses. My father didn't have one and the process for getting one was long and painful.
Ultimately, though he sold the business for Mwk25,786 plus Mwk4,000 for the working capital. That bid of Mwk25,786 had been on the table for 2 months before he finally got the license and the bidder was losing patience - there quite a few sleepless nights.
The day they drove to get the business license from Lilongwe my dad said he felt like it was pure gold. It was approved by Mr Malange, now my cousin's Grandpa but this was well before that happened.
After his auditors had paid all creditors (and themselves) he had Mwk18,000. He used Usd4,500 to buy a candle machine from Japan. This was a time when Malawi kwacha was still pegged to the pound and was much more valuable than Usd. Usd4,500 was about Mwk3,000.
What happened next was pure magic.
In 6 months of launching the candle business he had Mwk150,000 - we're not talking turnover here, we're saying saved up! Quite shocking when you consider that each candle was selling for just 10 tambala each and cost 4 tambala to produce. Keep in mind this is still 1983 - basically, when little Heather was born in November of that year business was booming, the sleepless nights were a thing of the past.
How he went from struggling with the tailoring business to being so cash rich you'll have to listen to find out.
Episode 4 (Roughly 60 Minutes)
Episode 5 (Roughly 30 Minutes)
In this episode I ask my dad how he came up with the name Candlex and I also want to know why he didn't buy a Mercedes Benz the moment he was cash rich.
This is the modus operandi of literally every guy I know who sniffs the littlest bit of cash. By the end of 1983 he had the funds to afford a Mercedes but he kept his little Datsun and didn't get a "flashy" car until 8 years of good business later in 1990.
Throughout the story you will notice that there are two things completely absent: drinking and football. I have never seen my dad watch sport. As he said in his story after work he was always researching the next thing or working on a business. It took 20 years of practice before he got his lucky break. How long have you been practicing?
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