Sub-Saharan Africa

Completing the clothes drive.


Following a busy two days of picking up and sorting clothes donations for victims of the Malawi floods as part of the #GetInvolved4Diginity campaign, we today handed over the catch to the Malawi Red Cross. The generosity of Lilongwe’s residents, both local and foreign, netted three large cars full of clothing, shoes, toys, and medical supplies. Donations came from embassies of countries near and far, several international organisations, and a number of unaffiliated individuals. On receiving the donations, the Red Cross representative commented that the goods were particularly warmly received as they were coming from individuals, “people like us”. The organisation is now responsible for delivering the goods to those affected. Most likely, the donations will leave the organisation’s office within the week, and be distributed to affected households in the areas of Nsanje and Chikwawa.

Lilongwe: Fear in the dark.

This post features edited excerpts from my recent report Survey of Urban Poor Settlements in Lilongwe, produced by ActionAid Malawi and the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network.

Residents don't trust each other in the dense settlement of Mwenyekondo

Residents don’t trust each other in the dense settlement of Mwenyekondo

To get a sense of the level of social capital in the 33 settlements surveyed, we asked respondents about feelings of safety and trust. As the below data shows, while levels of trust are relatively high, the sense of safety in most settlements varies considerably between day- and night-time. In essence, come sundown, you’d better be home.

Respondents were asked to rate how safe they feel in the settlement as well as the extent to which residents trust each other to assess the level of social capital in the settlements. As the below chart indicates, levels of trust are high in the majority (76%) of the settlements – only five settlements indicated low levels of trust. Four out of the five settlements with low trust levels between residents, Mwenyekondo, Mtsiriza, Mtandire, and Tumbwe, are characterized as relatively dense with high a percentage of renters, which may partly account for the lack of trust.

trust level

The sense of safety in the settlements surveyed is starkly divided between day- and night-time. While respondents in most settlements stated they felt safe during the day, they also indicated that they felt unsafe during the night. As a result, the sense of safety in 58% of the settlements is moderate. It is of note however that the sense of safety is low in almost a quarter of the settlements surveyed; 58% of settlements also cite crime as a problem.


Eighty-five percent of settlements indicated that they have good relationships with neighbouring settlements. Many respondents highlighted funerals as common occasions when residents in neighbouring settlements come together to support each other.

Locating the poor in Lilongwe.

This post features edited excerpts from my recent report Survey of Urban Poor Settlements in Lilongwe, produced by ActionAid Malawi and the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network.

Makatani settlement, categorised as Transitional-2

Makatani settlement, categorised as Transitional-2

In country where most people give directions based on landmarks, it can be difficult for an outsider to get a sense of what’s where. When it comes to poor settlements in Lilongwe, most people know they exist near so-and-so, but even people working in the settlements are not always clear which administrative area a particular settlement is located in. This of course says a lot about the relevance of (imposed) administrative boundaries for locals, as well as differences in how space is viewed and experienced by locals and outsiders (such as myself). In any case, part of what we wanted to do through our recent research project was to geo-locate the settlements we surveyed, and use that data in our analysis. Here’s what we found:

Poor settlements exist across Lilongwe City. However, as the below map shows, while most of the areas of Lilongwe are home to only one or two poor settlements, some areas stand out as containing more. Areas 25 and 49 are both home to five of the settlements surveyed, while Areas 50 and 55 contain three each. This is of note given that all four Areas, containing a total of 16 settlements (48% of total), are located in the northern part of Lilongwe and border each other.

The congregation of poor settlements in the northern part of the city is reflected in the distribution of settlements across Traditional Authorities (T/A) in Lilongwe. The clear majority (64%) of settlements surveyed is located in T/A Chitukula, which spans Areas 10, 25, 39, 41, 44, 49, 50, 51, and 55. 24% of settlements are located in T/A Tsabango, while only 2% of settlements are located in T/A Malili and T/A Njewa respectively.

There are however notable differences in living standards across the settlements surveyed. While all can be described as ‘poor’, there are variations in access to basic public services as well as land management practices between the settlements. To give an overall sense of the type of settlements surveyed, each settlement was scored on ten characteristics, and categorised as either Urban, Transitional-1, Transitional-2, or Rural. The categories were defined as follows:

Urban – Settlements are planned and residents pay City Rates. Land is managed by the LCC and Chiefs do not allocate land. House types are mixed or permanent, and the majority has access the LWB water, ESCOM electricity, access by tarmac road, and LCC waste collection.

Transitional-1 – Land is managed by the LCC and residents pay City Rates. All settlements are either fully or partly planned. All have access to LWB water and ESCOM electricity (one does not have electricity access).

– Settlements are unplanned and residents do not pay City Rates. House types are mixed, and some residents have access to tenure security documents. All have access to LWB water and ESCOM electricity.

Rural – Unplanned settlements where Chiefs play a role in land allocation and residents do not have secure tenure nor do they pay City Rates. Very limited access to public services.

The below pie chart shows the frequency of the resulting groups:

settlement typology

The chart indicates that two-thirds of the settlements fall into the Rural or the Transitional-2 category. As the map below shows, Transitional-2 settlements are located throughout the city. Settlements categorized as Rural on the other hand are located in the northern parts of the city; seven are located in adjacent Areas 25, 49, 50, and 55, while three are located in nearby each other in Areas 39, 41, and 44. Only one, Sese, is located in the southern part of the city.

Interestingly, ten of the eleven settlements categorized as Rural are located in T/A Chitukula, implying that there is not only a significant amount of poor settlements in the area, but also that those poor settlements are some of the worst off among those surveyed. Indeed, 71% of settlements in T/A Chitukula fall into categories Rural and Transitional-2, indicating a concentration of poverty in the area.

Only five settlements fall into the Transitional-1 category. Three of these are located close to each other in rapidly gentrifying Area 49. Similarly, only six settlements are classified as Urban. Apart from Mchesi, these were all established after Lilongwe became the capital of Malawi, i.e. post-1970. They are all also located in the vicinity of trading centres, which may account for their better than average access to public services as well as the prevalent formal land management structures.

A house in Sector 7, a settlement categorised as Urban

A house in Sector 7, a settlement categorised as Urban

To subsidise or not to subsidise?

Bricks drying in the sun in on of Lilongwe's poor settlements

Bricks drying in the sun in one of Lilongwe’s poor settlements

Heated debate over an upcoming subsidy for cement and iron sheets is raging in Malawi. Put forward in the new government’s 2014-2015 budget, the MK7billion ($18.4million) programme is, according to the government, aimed at supporting low income Malawians achieve decent and affordable housing. Critics, of which there are many, are not convinced. They have argued that it’s poverty, not availability of materials that is the problem, adding that other subsidy programmes, such as the Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP), have not been properly managed and therefore have not always benefited the most needy. Furthermore, the low number of intended beneficiaries, around 15,000 families or 80 houses per constituency in Malawi, has been faulted for being a drop in the ocean in a country where 80% of residents are estimated to live in sub-standard housing, as well as a drain on public funds.

There’s no doubt that something needs to be done on the housing front in Malawi. And while the quality of housing certainly is an issue – homes built using sun-burnt bricks are known to collapse during the rainy season – my own research (forthcoming) in Lilongwe’s poor settlements suggests this is considered less of a problem than some of the other features of what is defined as adequate housing. Specifically, at least residents in Lilongwe’s urban areas seem to consider their lack of access to key public services such as potable water, education, and health care as far bigger challenges than the quality of their housing.

Bricks are made on-site even in some of the most dense settlements in Lilongwe

Bricks are made on-site even in some of the most dense settlements in Lilongwe

So should the government subsidise cement and iron sheets? They will, no matter what, but I definitely don’t think they should. The (now ruling) DPP party’s election promise to put subsidies in place was all about gaining votes, while implementation of the subsidy reveals a populism that betrays a lack of appreciation of the real situation. Sure, the majority of Malawians live in sub-standard housing. Sure, that’s a problem. Are cement and iron subsidies for 15,000 families – one percent of the population by a generous estimate – the solution? No.

Much more forward-thinking solutions would include reverting to developing sites-and-services schemes in the country’s urban areas, promoting better techniques for making durable sun-burnt bricks, improving access to finance among the poor, and strengthening tenure security to give people the confidence to invest in their homes.

And all of the above does not even touch upon how hot and loud roofs made from iron sheets can be, and the multitude of environmental concerns associated with cement.