When cities cannot accommodate growth

It has been 30 years since Thomas Mwakabango came to town. He came in the hope of securing a better life. But that, too, has been elusive. Currently, he lives in a shanty area in Blantyre’s Machinjiri Township.

“I thought living in town is cheap. I have failed to build a decent house since I relocated to the city,” says Mwakabango, a Standard Eight dropout.

The 50-year-old built a low cost two-bedroomed house for his family of six in the Malawi’s commercial city. 

“It is a challenge because the house is too small for my family. I do not make enough money from my business to pay for rentals, school fees and daily upkeep,” he says.

Mwakabango is among millions who cannot afford to live in a decent house in the country.

With the population of Blantyre hovering at around 700 000, according to the National Statistics Office [NSO], many people struggle to live in or own a good house. The situation is the same in the country’s other cities of Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Zomba.

At the moment, the UN Habitat Malawi and the Ministry of Lands estimate that the country needs 21 000 new units every year to accommodate the growing urban population. The revelation comes as Malawi and the rest of the world commemorated World Habitat Day yesterday under the theme ‘Changing Cities, Building Opportunities’.

United Nations Human Settlements (UN-Habitat) programme manager in Malawi, John Chome, says the United Nations has chosen this theme because cities are the engines of growth.

“Fifty years ago, four in every 100 Malawians lived in urban areas. Today, 16 percent of Malawi’s population is urban and by the middle of this century, one in three Malawians will live in urban areas. The urban future is here with us but there are challenges,” he explains.

He adds that a sustainable urban future is possible by fostering partnerships at all levels involving central and local governments, the private sector, academia and professionals, development partners and urban dwellers.

“At the root of many of the challenges in addressing urbanisation and urban poverty is weak local government. Many local authorities do not have adequate staffing, technical skills or financial capital to tackle existing urban problems, let alone new challenges generated by rapid urbanisation,” says Chome.

Meanwhile, UN-Habitat Malawi is underscoring the need to plan cities better because of the notion that unplanned growth of cities leads to chaotic development and urban sprawl. The organisation believes that when well planned, cities can continue to provide housing opportunities even to future residents.

However, Principal Secretary for the Ministry of Lands Elsie Tembo says government will create awareness for communities on how to address challenges faced by cities and build opportunities for residents.

“We want to eradicate homelessness in our cities because most people flock there for a better future and prosperity,” says Tembo.

To this effect, Undule Mwakasungula, executive director of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation [CHRR] says government needs to create housing policies to benefit those that cannot afford houses in cities.

“Housing is a human rights issue. Government should know that not all people can have access to [Malawi Housing Corporation] houses. What we need is an entity that creates opportunities for all people,” he says.

Mwakasungula adds that there is no logic for government authorities to leave everything in the hands of MHC considering that the institution is a commercial entity, but rather create another viable one.

He says although there have been low cost housing projects in towns such as Blantyre, the current leadership should nationalise such project so that all city residents in Malawi benefit.

“In this case, the reason for our call is simple, unplanned growth of cities leads to chaotic development and urban sprawl. In fact, when well planned, cities can continue to provide opportunities to the current and future residents. This dovetails with the new UN-Habitat campaign,” he states.

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