Malawi’s Only Growth Business: Coffins

Click here to see more of David Plotz’s photographs from Africa.

On Saturday afternoon, before a deluge worthy of Noah ruins the day, I take a taxi over to Lilongwe’s Coffin Row. Kenyatta Drive, a ramshackle street on the edge of Old Town, is the traditional home to the capital city’s carpenters and joiners. Their tin-roofed workshops line the street. They put their showrooms on the dirt sidewalk. Displays of wood-and-straw beds, chairs, and tables make passage difficult.

But in the last couple of years, more and more of the carpenters have quit the furniture business and applied their skills to one of the very few growth industries in Malawi: death.

“I was making chairs, but people didn’t want chairs,” says 25-year-old Julius Chinangwa, standing on the sidewalk in front of his tiny shop. “They kept asking about coffins, so I started making coffins.” Two years ago, Julius opened a coffin workshop at the bottom of Kenyatta Drive, one of the first on the street. He soon found himself selling half-a-dozen caskets a day. Kenyatta Drive began filling with the death stores. Nearly a dozen opened further up the street, including Tayamba Coffin Shop, Mchesi Coffin Shop, and the wonderfully named Paganini’s.

Macdonald Macion

Business was so brisk for Julius that a year ago his younger brother Macdonald Macion opened Mac Coffin Workshop and Joinery right next door. (Despite the “Joinery” in the name, Mac only makes coffins.) Mac now employs three workmen and outsells his brother, moving seven to 10 coffins every day.

Mac entered to the coffin business after he was laid off from a bakery. This says almost all you need to know about Malawi: Bread is scarce, death is abundant.

Coffins are a fabulous business for obvious reasons: Malawi’s life expectancy is free-falling. It dropped from 43 years in 1996 to 39 years in 2000, and it’s surely even lower now. HIV infects 16 percent of the adult population, and barring a miracle the rate will keep climbing past 30 percent. (Many of Malawi’s Southern African neighbors have already passed 30 percent and are closing in on 40.) HIV victims are already succumbing by the thousands to opportunistic local diseases, especially TB, malaria, and cholera. Malawi is already losing 70,000 people a year to AIDS-related illness. And the real surge in AIDS deaths won’t come for a decade: This is a business for the long haul in Malawi.

Mac and Julius don’t know how many of their customers died because of AIDS. It’s not their business, and they don’t ask. But they do know that they almost never make a box for anyone over 50. They don’t seem alarmed about this fact. They’re businessmen. A bull market in death is good news. Death pays the bills.

The brothers are enthusiastic salesmen. Almost as soon as I say hello, Mac has pulled me into his shop to show off his various models. Before I get too comfortable, Julius (who speaks much better English) takes me by the arm and leads me next door to his tiny showroom.

Macdonald (second from left), Julius Chinangwa (far right), some of their workmen, and the $600 blue formica model

Mac is especially pleased with an elaborate blue Formica casket he displays outside. The coffin has aluminum handles and a small Plexiglas window that gives a clear view of the deceased. Mac tells me he just sold one of these for the funeral of a Lilongwe city assemblyman. Such a top-of-the-line model runs 55,000 Malawi kwacha, about $650. Malawi is one of the poorest nations in the world: $650 is more than three times the average annual income of $170.

But most of Mac and Julius’ best-sellers, they say, are rough wood boxes. Half a dozen of these, in various stages of completion, are stacked inside Mac’s room. A workman can hammer one together in a day, and it sells for about $60, still a tidy sum.

Like any entrepreneur, Julius is bubbling over with ideas to expand the business. While we’re talking, he opens one of his coffins, reaches in, and pulls out a notebook where he writes his plans. (This coffin record-keeping seems ghoulish, but I suppose it’s as good as a file cabinet.) Julius tells me he dreams to build more decorative, fantastical coffins—the kind of ornate, dreamy boxes popular in parts of West Africa. He points to a coffin—unsold—that is supposed to look like an airplane. “I want to do more like this, but I don’t have enough capital. I need capital,” Julius says. The way the coffin business is going here, he’ll have plenty of it soon.