Community mobilising in the face of a housing crisis

Nora Lindstrom, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 9 July 2014

Lilongwe is growing fast. The population growth rate is estimated at 4.3 percent per annum, with projections of some 600,000 new residents between now and 2020. In a city where three quarters of the population live in informal settlements and/or sub-standard housing, such an increase in population puts a massive strain on the already inadequate housing supply. UN-Habitat has estimated that 10,000 new dwellings will need to be built annually to house the city's growing population, mainly on the low-income spectrum. Beyond Chinese-funded gated community developments, however, no public initiatives to increase housing supply can be seen.

Patrick Chikoti is the Executive Director of the Centre for Community Organisation and Development (CCODE). The organisation he heads works with urban poor communities with the aim of helping communities help themselves. "At the moment the government doesn't provide any resources [for house construction]," he says. "If you want a house, from idea, through planning, realisation, and inhabitation, you have no contact with any authorities."

Access to land is facilitated — informally — by village chiefs, and "the poverty of the people is reflected in the quality of their houses" according to Patrick. As such, rural type housing is proliferating in Lilongwe, contributing to the ruralisation of urban areas, as also experienced in other parts of southern Africa.

"We need a real system that benefits the poor, the current system only benefits the other group," says Patrick. He adds that the current situation not only denies the poor adequate housing, but also adds to their marginalisation as they are perceived as encroachers given the informal way they access land for housing.

To enhance the urban poor's access to housing, CCODE in 2005 funded the construction of some 200 dwellings in Lilongwe's Area 49, to be repaid over time by the beneficiaries. While addressing the problem of housing supply, the approach was however met with challenges, including issues surrounding quality of the houses. Recently, there's been a change in approach. "We need to focus on building the community, because residents in a particular area are not always well-joined. We need to get them to collaborate, to support each other with their skills," says Patrick.

CCODE now works to mobilise and strengthen communities to pursue their needs. Key in the process is the development of community action plans and development strategies, which guide not only actions taken by the community itself, but also act as proposals to the government and potential donors. "The idea is to get the authorities to collaborate with the people," Patrick says. "I'd like to see Lilongwe City Council getting on the ground. [They should] be looking at things together with the people."

At the community level, the CCODE strategy has already born fruit in terms of helping communities identify their needs. "A few years ago, we conducted community enumeration in Mtandire, a large informal settlement," Patrick says. "The community members didn't even know how many households didn't have a toilet. When we got the results, they were so surprised."

Another target community is Senti, a poor settlement of some 16,000 residents. CCODE has been working with the community since 2012, conducting a community profiling exercise, including participatory mapping and enumeration. The process has helped the community define their needs and priorities, and they have created a savings scheme to raise funds for community development projects. To date, funds have already been used to improve roads in the settlement.

CCODE's work is laudable, and undoubtedly necessary in the face of increasing urbanisation. To complete the picture, however, the Malawi government must come forward with a comprehensive plan, such as a National Housing Policy (which has existed in draft form since 2007), to address the growing need for adequate housing in Lilongwe, as well as the country's other urban centres.

Photo credit: CCODE

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