Ganyu labour in current day Malawi: vicious or virtuous cycle?

Hanne Van Cappellen and Adriana Oliveres Mallol

Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world with a mostly rural population that is highly dependend on rainfed subsistence farming. However, increasing population, rising land pressure, and exposure to climate change is forcing Malawian households to find alternative sources of income beyond agriculture. Survey data show that casual labour (ganyu) has significantly increased over the last decade, giving rural households an opportunity to provide more hours of work off the land. However, previous and relatively outdated literature argues that, instead, ganyu is a sign of rural distress. This paper studies the nature of ganyu in current day Malawi and whether and how it has evolved over the years. The novelty lies in the expansion of the traditional understanding of ganyu as being agricultural casual labour, inclusion of rural-urban linkages and the explicit link with other livelihood strategies and labour seasonality.

Our paper applies an explicit interdisciplinary approach by combining positivist with interpretivist research models. The data were collected from February to May 2023, under a multiple case study design. It consists of semi-structured in-depth life history interviews with 90 respondents from six villages, complemented with 24 focus group discussions. The sampled villages are balanced regionally and selected to reflect different degrees of urban influence. The respondents were purposively selected to gain insight in ganyu practices, its socio-economic significance and its links with other livelihood strategies, land dynamics and urbanisation. Additionally, the questionnaire of the life-history interviews was explicitly designed to facilitate the link with the Integrated Household Survey, enabling the extrapolation of the in-depth findings in time and space.

The data reveals that ganyu is widespread among the Malawian population. Complementing the previous literature on ganyu with our primary data, we observe that the nature of ganyu labour has evolved over time. Originally, it manifested as a social relationship among villagers, characterized by mutually beneficial labour exchanges for a determined set of activities. This transformed into a patron-client dynamic, wherein economically disadvantaged households offer their labour to wealthier counterparts as a moral obligation. Subsequently, ganyu has progressively shifted towards a marketized form of short-term informal labour, weaving itself into various aspect of daily livelihoods. Thus, ganyu went from having a social nature to having an economic nature. The factors that have contributed to this transition are multiple. We highlight the issue of land scarcity, seasonal agricultural and labour patterns, the growing need for cash, and the increasingly present rural-urban linkages.