Smallholders now grow most of Malawi's main export crop – burley tobacco. Based on nineteen months' fieldwork in the Central Region, this article offers a sociological interpretation of why some smallholder growers spend a proportion of burley income on conspicuous consumption in rural towns and trading centres. This practice can be seen as a form of inculcated behaviour whereby smallholders reproduce elements of one model of success in this region: that of the Malawian tobacco bwana (boss/master). The article discusses implications from this form of potlatch behaviour by describing the contrasting fortunes of two non-farm rural enterprises, examining data on how tobacco production and ‘cooling off’ is viewed by wives, and comparing the crop preferences of husbands and wives. It concludes by suggesting that the concept of conspicuous consumption may provide an alternative prism to the instrumental lens of neo-patrimonialism through which to view apparently unintelligible investment decisions in African economies.