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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 July 2007, 00:57 GMT 01:57 UK
Malawi Aids-fight changes economy
By Joe Lynam
Business reporter, BBC News, Lilongwe, Malawi

Coffin Row
Fewer deaths means the coffin business is suffering

Malawi's infamous coffin makers are rumoured to be pretty unfriendly. Nosy visitors who have not come to shop are said to face the risk of being pelted with bricks or stones, though in reality they are more likely to be greeted by friendly faces.

The coffin makers' workshops spread out alongside a wide street near the newly created Capital area of Lilongwe, which also houses the mausoleum of the former president, Kamuzu Banda.

And again, first impressions differ vastly from reality.

Hopes where high when President Banda instigated Malawian independence from Britain in 1966, but the hopes were soon dashed as he quickly turned his back on the idea of democracy and instead declared himself "President for Life".

It took 27 years before President Banda was eventually forced from power, in 1993.

A dying business

Malawi's current head of state, President Bingu wa Mutharika, was elected in 2004 with a mandate to drag the impoverished East African country into the 20th century - never mind the current millennium.

His main task was to stop the spread of HIV/Aids, which had claimed hundreds of thousands of lives - including President Mutharika's own brother.

Statistics are very unreliable here, but somewhere between 15% and 30% of the country has the virus. Others die of diseases that could be cured by a tablet in the West, such as malaria, tuberculosis or malnutrition.

This bleak prognosis means the Malawian people do not live long. Few expect to see their 40th birthday.

For many local carpenters, though, being surrounded by death is good for business.

On Lubani Road, almost half of the 60 or so stalls on either side of the street make and sell coffins to an eager market. Coffin Row as it has become known, is Malawi's macabre equivalent of Silicon Valley, with impoverished carpenters instead of geeky tech experts in California.

Hendrik has been plying his trade here for almost 5 years. From crude pine he fashions a respectable coffin with a glossy laminate veneer and polished handles - all for the princely sum of Kw20,000 ($140; 70).

That is a good living here, considering that more than 60% of the population lives on less than $1 a day - the United Nation's definition of absolute poverty.

And yet, he is worried. Business is down.

Healthy solutions

Three years ago, the entire street made and sold funeral caskets, staying open 24 hours a day to meet this awful demand. Today the carpenters complain that they each sell only about 10 a week. Many of them have switched trades into making furniture or repairing metal.

Passing on ceremony
Chicken are passed on to help more people help themselves

Much of the credit for that lies with the new government's health programme, which is tackling Aids with anti retro-viral drugs and an awareness campaign.

The programme is working. A recent World Bank report says the number of people dying from Aids is on its way down in many African states, including Rwanda, Zambia and Malawi.

And it is not just health programmes that are turning the situation around. The government and foreign aid groups are also creating new ways to wean poor Malawians off hand-outs and make them more self-reliant.

In Kaphuka, a village about 2 hours south-east of Lilongwe, an innovative livestock scheme has been set up by a charity called Cara Malawi.

Instead of simply handing out food, selected women in the village are given live goats or chickens, which provide milk and eggs.

After a year or so, those inhabitants hand over one of the animals' offspring to a neighbour, who can then fend for themselves in a "pay-it-forward" manner.

Aids poster
Malawi has slowly started to deal with its "slimming disease"

Though these schemes are innovative and provide a practical way of allowing extraordinarily poor villagers to help themselves, Malawi has a long way to go before it even reaches the levels of life expectancy and wealth enjoyed by most other African countries.

There are 20 doctors per million people here, compared with about 3,000 in wealthier Western countries.

And informing people about how to protect themselves from Aids is still not easy. Malawians refuse to refer to the problem directly, preferring instead to call it the "slimming disease".

But a good start has been made and the latest World Bank statistics seem to show that Lilongwe's coffin-makers are being driven out of business.

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