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Malawi’s urban squeeze

Ndirande Pic

Ndirande is one of the densest neighbourhoods in Malawi, where urban population growth is expected to double by 2020. Photo by Angela Pereira.

By Angela Pereira

Walking around Blantyre, one of Malawi’s largest cities, is a relaxing endeavour. You can traverse its downtown core in only 30 minutes, recognizing the same faces daily, finding public transportation quickly, and facing a minimum of jostling and hassling.

Blantyre’s sleepy vibe is understandable given 80 per cent of Malawians live outside city boundaries. But the country’s status as one of the world’s least urbanized countries is changing rapidly.

The United Nations Human Settlement Program (UN-Habitat) reports that Malawi’s annual urbanization rate of 5.2 per cent is now one of the highest in the world—but its cities aren’t ready to house the masses at their doorstep.

So what’s pushing Malawians from their villages?

John Chome, habitat program manager for the United Nations Development Program in Malawi, blames growing competition for fertile land, increasing environmental fragility and limited rural jobs.

“When people move, they move to better their lives,” says Chome. “And they think that better life is to be found when they find a job with a better income.”

Francis Kamanga, 21, moved to Blantyre with his family when he was a child.

“I was so excited,” he says. “We had heard beautiful news from our neighbours about the city.”

Kamanga’s family relocated in the mid-1990s among a trickle of rural migrants; but now it is a full-blown flood, with urban population growth rates expected to almost double by 2020. UN-Habitat predicts 21,000 new homes will be needed every year until then to meet the demand.

But cities are already facing a critical shortage of acceptable housing. According to UN-Habitat, close to 90 per cent of urban Malawians already live in slum conditions and 80 per cent can’t afford to access decent housing. Plus, public institutions that provide land and housing can’t keep up with current need.

“Slums are beginning to grow,” says Chome. “People end up living with their relatives leading to overcrowding, or living in shacks in unplanned areas.”

Kamanga and his family stay in Blantyre’s Ndirande township, a high-density, unplanned area, with a population of about 150,000.

“One has to look deep into his pockets to find a house here,” says Kamanga, “and if you do find one, it is very small and dilapidated.” 

Mtafu Manda, director of an urban planning consultancy, suggests government should enact a comprehensive urban planning strategy and provide housing loans with flexible repayment rules to the urban poor.

Even if there are enough affordable and acceptable houses to go around, Manda says city councils lack the resources to provide them with water and sanitation services.

As recently as 2008, Ndirande residents faced cholera outbreaks due to poor sanitation.

But politicians tend to focus efforts on potential voters—the majority of which are still in rural areas.

Chome says Malawi’s leaders must embrace an urban future as something that could be good for the country’s development.  He says many African governments made the mistake of focusing on rural development to stem migration but “people have continued to vote with their feet to go into town.”

And despite the challenges he faces in Ndirande, Kamanga says his family’s decision to migrate was a good one. “If I was still in the village, I probably wouldn’t have my education and I wouldn’t be where I am.”

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