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Moving to Malawi

Malawi is a small country in southeast Africa bordered by Zambia, Mozambique and Tanzania. Affectionately known as the 'Warm Heart of Africa', expats moving to Malawi will find a population that is warm and welcoming, and a climate to match. Besides the country's clement weather and good-natured people, expats are increasingly drawn to Malawi for its gorgeous lake and landscapes, low cost of living and relaxed pace of life.

Living in Malawi as an expat

Although Malawi's culture is more conservative than many western countries, the people are friendly, helpful and vibrant. Making friends is likely to be a breeze, and both locals and other expats are generally very approachable and helpful. While this certainly limits culture shock, expats will still have to adjust their lifestyle. Some goods and services, such as many clothing stores, are not as easily available as they might be back home, and expats are also likely to experience frequent power cuts – something that may take some getting used to. That said, expats are always able to get what they need and import what they can't find in the country.

The capital and largest city is Lilongwe, while Blantyre, the second-largest city, is Malawi’s commercial capital. Most expats in Malawi live in these two main cities, with the expat scene being a mix of diplomats, teachers, doctors, missionaries, businesspeople, hospitality and NGO workers, and government officials. Malawi's expat population is mainly from the UK, Europe, the US and South Africa.

As a poor, landlocked country, Malawi is among the world’s least developed. The economy is heavily dependent on agriculture, with more than 80 percent of the working population employed in this sector. Tobacco, tea, sugarcane and cotton are major exports, and expats often work in these industries.

The tourism sector accounts for a small percentage of working expats living in Malawi. Most expats who work in tourism are located near Lake Malawi, which is the third-largest lake in Africa and covers about a fifth of the country. The possibility to relax, take in beautiful sunsets and all that nature has to offer while enjoying water sports, hikes or casual strolls on the beach lure in many tourists.

Expat accommodation in Malawi is usually free-standing houses or gated complexes, although apartment-living is growing. Houses tend to have large gardens, perfect for families and pets. Oftentimes, the company an expat works for will help organise accommodation.

Although healthcare and education have improved in recent years, they are still well below what many expats may be used to. There are both public and private hospitals and clinics in Malawi, but these often lack resources and sufficient medical staff. While general health issues and emergencies may be catered for in Lilongwe and Blantyre, anything more serious may require air evacuation to a nearby country such as South Africa. Expats should ensure they have adequate medical insurance to cover emergency airlifting out of the country.

Expat families and children

For expat families, there are a handful of private and international schools in Malawi, while home-schooling offers an alternative that is both cheaper and more convenient for many families. The international and private schools, mainly in Lilongwe and Blantyre, provide children with a strong educational environment to grow and learn in. These follow the British national curriculum of IGCSEs and A Levels or offer the International Baccalaureate. 

A number of these schools offer boarding facilities, which may be suitable for expats living in more remote areas of Malawi. As space may be limited, parents should apply.

Overall, expats relocating to Malawi will encounter a slow pace of life and are likely to face a range of wonderful experiences, as well as frustrating challenges. With patience and understanding, expats can easily adapt to their new lives in the Warm Heart of Africa.

Fast facts

Population: Around 19 million

Capital city: Lilongwe

Neighbouring countries: Malawi borders Mozambique to the east, south and south-west, Zambia to the northwest and Tanzania to the northeast.

Geography: Malawi is a small landlocked country characterised by central plateaus and rugged highlands in the north and south. The Great Rift Valley traverses the country. Lake Malawi, which takes up a huge portion of eastern Malawi, covering about 20% of Malawi's total area.    

Political system: Unitary presidential republic

Major religions: Christianity and Islam

Main languages: English and Chichewa

Money: The Malawian Kwacha (MWK), which subdivides into 100 tambala.

Tipping: Tipping is obligatory but not necessary. Tipping is usually at 10 percent if a service charge is not included. 

Time: GMT+2

Electricity: 230 volts, 50 Hz. 'Type G' three-pin plugs with flat blades are used. 

Internet domain: .mw

International dialling code: +265

Emergency numbers: 997 (police), 998 (ambulance), 999 (fire department) 

Drives on the: left. Minibus taxis and buses service Malawi fairly extensively. The main city roads are fairly well maintained, so driving in Malawi is viable. As the roads can be poorly illuminated, it's best to avoid driving at night. 

Pros and Cons of Moving to Malawi

As a relatively small country that doesn't appear in the news often, Malawi presents expats with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. The country has a fairly substantial expat population, a large portion of which relocate with the intention of only staying in Malawi for a couple of years but often end up extending their stay.

As in any country, life in Malawi has its ups and downs. To help expats get a clearer idea of life in the 'Warm Heart of Africa', we've listed some of Malawi's pros and cons below.

Accommodation in Malawi

+ PRO: Housing in Malawi is affordable

Expats moving to Malawi from more developed countries will find accommodation to be well priced. Expats are often able to settle in spacious houses with large gardens, the cost of which usually equals that of a small apartment in a European city.

- CON: Rental agreements in Malawi may be unfamiliar

When renting a property in Malawi, expats must be sure that they understand the rental agreement before signing. Landlords may ask for more than just one month’s deposit, and expats should therefore budget accordingly. Indeed, initial costs may be surprisingly high, as the substantial deposit and the first month's rent are usually required up front. 

Cost of living in Malawi

+ PRO: Low cost of living in Malawi

The cost of living is reasonable in Malawi. The price of rent, groceries and eating out is low, as is hiring a domestic worker. In fact, most expats will have someone who helps clean and cook, as well as someone who provides gardening services.

- CON: Many products aren't available

Many products, brands, shops and restaurants that expats may be used to back home are considered luxuries in Malawi. This includes clothing, sports equipment, toiletries and cosmetic products. Other than locally-produced food, many products are imported, which means that they are expensive. Expats will have to plan and pack effectively when travelling into the country, particularly when it comes to electronics.

Lifestyle and culture in Malawi

+ PRO: Friendly people

It's certainly no accident that Malawi is known as the 'Warm Heart of Africa': the country is famous for its friendly people and warm culture. Malawians are compassionate and helpful, which means expats are greeted with the biggest smiles and are able make connections and build friendships quite easily.

- CON: Slow pace of life

If expats are used to a fast-paced life, then Malawi will take some getting used to. Even if expats are normally relaxed, they'll still notice that things rarely happen on time in Malawi. This is the case with formal business meetings, casual social events or even for arrangements for a plumber or electrician to resolve a household problem. This is often a cause of frustration for expats.

- CON: Electricity and water supplies are problematic

Along with the slow pace of life, expats will have to adjust their lifestyle to the many power cuts and water shortages that occur in Malawi. Expats will have to get used to using inverters to power essentials at home, while workplaces would often have generators. Some houses have boreholes to circumvent the water-supply issue.

Healthcare in Malawi

+ PRO: Skilled healthcare practitioners

There are many skilled expat and local doctors who provide high-quality healthcare in a few of the country's hospitals. 

+ PRO: Good supply of medication

Pharmacies in Malawi are decent, and most medications are available. If something isn't available, it can usually be ordered.

- CON: Access and availability of hospitals

Outside of the major cities, the number of doctors is low and access to hospitals is limited. We'd also recommend expats consider health insurance that covers emergency evacuation to South Africa, or elsewhere, in the case that practitioners in Malawi can't provide the level of treatment needed.

- CON: Diseases like malaria are a big concern

Health cover is important as there are high rates of disease in Malawi, especially with regards to malaria. Expats will need to take the necessary precautions to avoid malaria, such as the use of prophylactics, mosquito repellents and mosquito nets.

Safety in Malawi

+ PRO: Malawi is peaceful

Malawi is generally rather peaceful. That said, poverty is high and crime is therefore a reality. Crime is most often opportunistic, and many expats opt to have guards stationed outside their properties, which is usually enough of a deterrent for break-ins.

- CON: Political tension

Despite the normal tranquil laidback lifestyle, Malawi faces political tension, especially around election time, and protests have been known to turn violent. Expats will need to be cautious during these times and stay in touch with the community in their city to stay updated.

Education in Malawi

+ PRO: Excellent international schools

Malawi has a small selection of excellent international schools situated in Lilongwe and Blantyre, which provide high-quality education. Teachers at these schools are often a mix of Malawians and expats, and both the International Baccalaureate (IB) and IGCSE/A-Level curricula are available.

- CON: Exorbitant fees of international schools

International schools come with international fees, which are often based in US dollars. Malawi’s currency fluctuates frequently and fees can change dramatically from term to term. Expats getting paid in kwacha will feel the heavy cost of international education.

Getting around in Malawi

+ PRO: Cars give great freedom to travel

Cars are the most common form of transport among expats, as they provide the most independence and freedom to travel. There is so much to see in Malawi, from the city life to the lake and beautiful national parks, and a car is therefore vital.

- CON: Poor road networks

Despite recent work to improve the country's road system, the roads are narrow and any existing potholes are not sign-posted. Roads in rural areas also may not be tarred, and expats are encouraged to drive 4x4s rather than sedans. Driving at night in rural areas is also not advised, due to the prevalence of people and animals in the road.