Filling a vacuum: Efforts to map and enumerate Lilongwe

Nora Lindstrom, Lilongwe Community Manager
Lilongwe, 2 March 2015

The latest national census in Malawi, conducted in 2008, put the population of Lilongwe at 669,000. This year, it's projected to break the one million mark, with most of the growth having occurred in the city's poor settlements. Or at least that's the expectation. In fact, no one really knows, as the next census isn't due until 2018 and population growth since 2008 is anticipated to have been strong. This is a problem for both the government and civil society, as it means there is a dearth of data to advise decisions on resource allocation and service provision.

Some efforts to counter this are, however, being taken by civil society actors. In late 2014, the Lilongwe Urban Poor People's Network (LUPPEN) and ActionAid Malawi published a Survey of Urban Poor Settlements in Lilongwe. In addition to having collected settlement-level data on governance and access to public services from 33 locations, the survey also — seemingly for the first time — geo-located the settlements, which are estimated to represent some 90 percent of all poor settlements in the city. This led to some interesting findings, including that poverty appears to be concentrated in the city's north, where most of the settlements are located.

Other actors are conducting research on an even more local level. Community profiles developed by the Centre for Community Organisations and Development (CCODE), together with the Malawi Homeless People's Federation, not only give population figures for a settlement, but also provide data on everything from household energy sources, through access to sanitation, to the number of vulnerable people in the settlement by age and gender. This type of community mapping and enumeration approach has been widely used around the world for purposes ranging from creating evidence for advocacy to strengthening community cohesion. In CCODE and the Federation's work, it forms the basis for the development of Community Development Strategies which aim to be the blueprints for community-led self-help projects.

A weakness of the above initiatives is that they are independent projects and do not generate official data. A project run by the Revenue Development Foundation (RDF) in Mzuzu, a city some five hours north of Lilongwe, provides an example of how working with the local authorities can lead to increased inclusion of the urban poor in the formal city fabric. With the aim of increasing local revenue collection from taxes on property and business licenses, RDF together with the local authorities are enumerating and valuing all properties in the city, including those in so-called informal areas. While the implementers clearly note that being counted through the project does not constitute formal recognition of properties in informal areas, it is hard not to see inclusion as contributing to households moving from informality toward formality on the tenure security continuum. Recently, there has been talk of expanding the work to Lilongwe. As the capital as well as being a larger city, however, Lilongwe represents a more challenging and politically sensitive working environment for this type of work.

Nonetheless, data is best shared. At the national level, efforts have been made to promote creation and sharing of geospatial data through the MASDAP open data platform. The site is a great repository of freely and easily available geo-data on Lilongwe as well as other parts of the country, encouraging users to combine different datasets and create novel maps and data visualisations. Unfortunately, it seems somewhat dormant at the moment; two years after its launch the site remains in beta mode, and neither CCODE nor LUPPEN/ActionAid data on Lilongwe is available there. As the need for better data to guide Malawi's development remains strong, it would be positive to see a revival in MASDAP activities, including trainings on the benefits of open data.

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