The future remains plastic.


I’ve previously written about the ban on thin plastic bags in Malawi, which came into effect in June this year. At the time, I noted that it was a seriously forward move for the country, where plastic litter can be found all over the capital. Except that it wasn’t.

Initially, it seemed some changes were being made: my local supermarket, Chipiku, had signs up explaining the ban, and sold customers heavy-duty plastic bags to put their groceries in. Alas, that did not last. Only a week or so after the (supposed) ban, Chipiku and other stores were back at eagerly packing my items into multiple, free, thin plastic bags. What went wrong?

Local newspaper The Nation today reports that an industry appeal to the (then) Minister of Environment and Climate Change Management in March 2014 won them a year’s reprieve. Plastics manufacturers argued that the ban would have an adverse impact on their industry, and that they were setting up a plastics recycling plant to help reduce plastic waste. The Minister was swayed: “Considering the issues you have raised and actions proposed towards production of biodegradable plastics, investment in recycling machines, and commencement of social programmes to reduce indiscriminate production and use of thin plastics, it has been necessary to extend the commencement date of commencing the ban to 30 June 2015.”

This happened well before the ban was announced. So why then was the ban announced at all? According to The Nation, political in-fighting seems to have been the culprit. While the (then) Minister give the industry reprieve, the (then) Principal Secretary went ahead and launched the ban. Enter: confusion.

The ultimate loser in the saga is the environment. While the plastics industry’s claims to commence recycling of plastics and manufacturing of biodegradable products are positive, initial announcement followed by half-hearted retraction of the ban shows just how weak the government is in enforcing its own policies and legislation. Sadly, that leaves little hope that the ban will be compellingly revived in 2015.


A standard for cities?

The International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) has issued an international standard for cities. Entitled ISO 37120:2014 Sustainable development of communities — Indicators for city services and quality of life, it features 46 performance indicators, mainly on access to public services. Cities are expected to track these, although compliance is not compulsory.

According to proponents, such as Neal Peirce of Citiscope, the implications of the “city ISO” are dramatic. Having set indicators will allow for cities to be compared based on the same objective indictors, “[a]nd just as significant, the people of cities — civic, business organizations, ordinary citizens — will be able to access the same new global standards. This means they can ask city leaders tough questions, stoking debate about their own city’s performance on the basis of verified measures ranging from education to public safety to water and sanitation.”

Sure, better data and strengthened accountability. Sounds good. But what is an international standard?

According to ISO, “[a] standard is a document that provides requirements, specifications, guidelines or characteristics that can be used consistently to ensure that materials, products, processes and services are fit for their purpose.”

So if a city doesn’t rank well on the ISO standards it’s not fit for purpose? Sounds rather odd. I’m also curious about how developing country cities are expected to provide reliable data such as “Assessed value of commercial and industrial properties as a percentage of total assessed value of all properties”, and how much all this data gathering might cost them.

Thankfully there’s a chance I might get some answers: Meeting of the Minds, Citiscope, and the World Council on City Data are hosting a webinar on the topic on Nov. 11. You can register for it here.

urban_net #4: Land reform, community mobilisation, and waste management.

WP_20141002_001 (2)

The fourth urban_net meeting took place today at the ActionAid office in Lilongwe, featuring three presentations. First up was Harun Aubi Juma, a Masters student at Chancellor College, presenting a political economy analysis of (lack of) land reform in Malawi. Juma outlined how land reform was initially initiated at the start of multi-party democracy in 1994, but that since has stalled and while the Land Bill was passed last year, it is still to be enacted. “Land reform in Malawi is caught in competing objectives between the state and private sector on one hand and local communities on the other,” he argued, noting how the poor are the losers in this scenario and how the scarcity of land in rural areas pushes people to migrate to urban areas, resulting in the profileration of unplanned settlements.

The second presentation, by CCODE intern Eleonore Dupre, featured research findings on community mobilisation and participation in community projects in Kauma, a large poor settlement in Lilongwe. Key findings included that poverty and the need to make a living can trump participation in community development projects, and that when individuals participate, the motivation for doing so often centres on the individual benefit gained from the project, such as a daily allowance, as opposed to the common benefit. Dupre also found that there was a general lack of awareness of many development projects, as well as that newcomers to the settlement often felt excluded. Nevertheless, respondents indicated an overall sense of well-being.

The final presentation, by ActionAid and LUPPEN Advisor Nora Lindstrom, looked at waste management in poor areas of Lilongwe. Lindstrom showed how the city’s poor settlements are significantly under-served by municipal waste collection services, leading to harmful practices such as burning and dumping waste. She noted that part of the reason for this lies in that the City Council does not have adequate resources to manage waste in the city, which in turn has led to the proliferation of (illegal) private waste management services who collect waste for a fee from the city’s wealthier residents and subsequently appear to dump it in poor communities. Composting, if done properly, was highlighted as an effective waste management strategy given that over 70% of waste in Lilongwe is estimated to be organic.

The next urban_net meeting will take place on Thursday, Oct. 6, 2014 – join us!

urban_net: Revenue mobilisation, private sector, and SDGs

The third urban_net meeting was hosted by ActionAid Malawi.

The third urban_net meeting was hosted by ActionAid Malawi.

The third urban_net meeting took place in Lilongwe on Sep. 4. This month’s meeting featured a presentation by the Revenue Development Foundation, about their local government revenue mobilisation programme in Mzuzu. A interesting initiative, the programme has enumerated all properties in the city – whether in formal or informal areas – and is gearing up to get all of the city’s residents (as well as businesses) to pay property taxes in return for better public services.

The second presentation was by Nicholson Kumwenda of Sustainable Urban Land and Shelter Development Consultants (SULSDEC), a private company promoting easy access to affordable land and housing in safe, secure, and decent urban communities.

Finally discussion turned to the post-2015 development agenda, and the possible impact of the proposed urban Sustainable Development Goal on Malawi’s new development priorities, to be reflected in the third Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (starting 2017).

Malawi bans bags – of the plastic variety

Waste in Mwynekondo settlement in Lilongwe.

Waste in Mwynekondo settlement in Lilongwe.

In a seriously forward move, Malawi’s Ministry of Energy, Mining, and Natural Resources has banned the production and import of plastic material of a less than 60 micron thickness. Kudos. In a country with pathetic waste collection services but where the majority of waste is organic, this represents an important step in the right direction. Partly, it will hopefully help in reducing overall inorganic waste, and the negative impacts resulting from the common practice of burning or dumping waste. But also (fingers crossed), it may make for cleaner compost; many urban households bury their waste and later use it in their fields, but sadly rarely sort their waste prior to burying it.

Not everyone has been happy about the development, however. Plastic bag vendors have decried their loss of income as a result of the sudden ban, with one widowed vendor saying “At this point, I am hopeless since I have been doing this business for eight years, this small shop is the only thing my husband left for my family. My children’s food, clothes and school fees come from it, the ban has left me clueless as on what will come out of our future.” (As quoted in MANA Online) In response to the backlash, the government last week announced a two-week reprieve on the ban.

There are question marks over exactly how (and/or for how long) the plastics ban is going to be monitored and implemented, particularly in the country’s extensive informal economy. It is also evident that there was limited consultation on the law, resulting in unnecessary negative press for what is essentially a positive move for the the country. The good news is, however, that if the Malawian government is serious about minimising waste there are plenty of more ways to do it – just make sure you get the public on board.

Talking urban in Lilongwe.


Today was an exciting day for Lilongwe’s urbanites with the first ever urban_net meeting taking place. The brainchild of myself (as Urban Governance Advisor for ActionAid Malawi), the Urban Research Institute (URI), and the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE), urban_net is a monthly informal forum for urban enthusiasts to come together, share experiences, and network.

We had a dozen or so participants at the first meeting, including representatives from UN-HABITAT, Land and Shelter Advocacy, Kusamala, and the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network (LUPPEN), in addition to the organisers. The meeting featured three presentations; Dan Schlupp from Kusamala Institute of Agriculture & Ecology started off with a talk about GIS and participatory mapping, which generated lively discussion about the uses of both tools in urban settings. I followed on with a querying presentation regarding the exact local of so-called informal settlements in Lilongwe and how the areas they occupy are zoned in the 2030 Land Use Plan.


Last but not least Wonderful Hunga from URI talked about shit. Literally. His presentation discussed the growing sanitation crisis in Malawi’s cities, where residents are running out of space on which to build traditional pit latrines (which 90% of people rely on). The solution? Composting toilets.

Overall, it was great first meeting featuring very lively discussion that’s hopefully just a sign of things to come; urban_net aims to be a monthly event taking place on the first Thursday of every month. The next meeting is therefore on Aug. 7 – anyone and everyone is welcome to attend, and we welcome suggestions for presentations. Get in touch!



Going local in Lilongwe.

The monthly Farmers’ Market took place in Lilongwe last Saturday. Held at the leafy and vast grounds of the Sanctuary Lodge, the market featured a variety local produce and goods, including home-made cheese, knit-wear, fish, and a array of knick-knacks made from chitenje, the local name for the fabric used by Malawian women as wrap-around skirts.

farmers market 2_r

One of my favourite products on offer was jars of garden fresh tomatoes by the women’s collective Kwithu Kitchen based in Mzuzu. Founded in 2004, the collective uses revenue from product sales to provide children with hot meals, early childhood education, and after school tutoring. They’ve recently had problems getting their product delivered to Lilongwe, so I was very happy to scoop up a couple of jars of their delicious tomatoes.

farmers market 1_r

farmers market 3_r

I was also impressed by the beautiful trinkets and home ware made from beads showcased by the Lilongwe-based Streetwise Project, and the colourful jars handmade by a local woman. Having fallen for baobab (an up-and-coming superfood I’m sure) since moving to Malawi, I also picked up a jar of baobab jam made by the Ngolowindo Cooperative in Salima. Other stalls at the market featured produce from Kusamala (who also deliver my weekly veggie box), the Cheese Company, and The Pantree, which does a variety of delicious chutneys and jams. And that’s just to name a few.

farmers market 4_r

To be fair, the Farmers’ market is largely an expat affair, but it does give additional opportunities to social enterprises like Kwithu Kitchen to showcase their product and add to the growing group of aficionados. So head to the next one.