Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Malawi Housing Crisis

There is an acute shortage of housing in the urban areas of this country. Lilongwe is proving to be the worst and there is no end in site. The other three cities are no better. Rentals are skyrocketting beyond the reach of average persons. Add to the fact earnings are generally low and a majority of city dwellers have no job or large families. Factor in our naturally extended families as a means of social protection. There is no end to the housing plight of average citizens that struggle to earn a decent living. Somewhere, someone is not doing their job or simply do not care. The process of allocating land to build houses has institionalised corruption to some extent. Malawi Housing Corporation, City Assemblies and the Ministry of Lands seem highly contented with the status quo. Looks like they take pride in our desperation and ques that we make in their offices. The master slave relationship it has become. We pay taxes. Either they are clueless on what they are supposed to do or do not care as long as they collect corrupt rents from the connected. Unfortunately, it is not easing the housing crisis. People are suffering.

What have we seen over the last decade or afew years? Emergence of peri-urban areas such as Njewa, Lumbazi in the outskirts of Lilongwe, Chileka in Blantyre and along the Nkhata-Bay road. Malawians dream to own homes or invest in residential property but the process is doggy and very corrupt. I dont need to provide proof, but potential home owners, average hard working Malawians, have resorted to buying land in customary areas in the outskirts of our cities. Pathetic situation. Again who has more cash gets such land.
I dont need to provide proof to the anti-corruption bureau, but the mere existence of codes against such malpractices in the land management institutions is enough. There are three, if not two classes of people that are often favoured in land allocation in our cities by assemblies, lands minsitry and the Malawi Housing Corporation. Politicians, often the powerful ruling elites. We have tales of the recent sale of housing units in Blantyre that would even stun a lookie public procurement assistant. Secondly, we have the super-rich-Malawian oligarchs, often connected to the regime and sometimes willing to pay high bribes. Then a bunch of rich foreigners through shady and dubiosu connections. The rest of us are condemned to scramble for the existing houses for rent. I dont know whether this amounts to a housing policy of any kind, but I believe the political leadership should do more. The lands ministry is headed by a capable bloke.

The land grab outside our cities is moving at alarming levels. The poor are being forced to sell their land to rich foreigners or the relatively well off urban dwellers that cannot access land to build homes in the cities for reasons i narrate. The poorer someone becomes, it appears, there are two options. Being forced further out of town so that you pay a much higher bus fare to city and remain in that state forever, or come to city and live in squalor/slum, remain in a similar situation, welfare wise. Vicious cycle it appears. Is our hosuing policy deliberately trapping our poor/middle class and condemning them into perpetual poverty or hell? Maybe we have a silent class war.

There are lots of benefits from making land allocation easy, effective and more important efficient. I see no point in filling forms and paying fees to Malawi Housing Corporation, Minsitry of Lands and City Assemblies and staying for over 20 years without any allocation. Worse still, not even an acknowledgement that your application is unsuccessful for any dubious reason atleast. Sounds like revenue collection of some kind to screw us even more. If these process are efficient, our people can easily access loans to invest from financial institutions. The people we are pushing out of the city to customary land, struggle for years to get a title to their land. To the financial institutions, this land cannot be used as collateral. Issues of title to property are also quite common in the cities where sizeable properties do not have title deeds even in the low density suburbs----reason, there is alot of corruption in the allocation processes. While the cost of borrowing from banks is already high, accessibility to finance can be enhanced if there was a transparent way in which property rights are adminstered by the these three major institutions. Owning land or a property is not a priviledge of the rich few, but a right of every citizen in our “God/Donor fearing nation” as the Republican constitution stipulates.

I believe JB and her government will take heed of the rising population. With limited opportunities in the rural areas, everyone is flocking to the cities. Lilongwe city is now a million plus people. Population growth remains high and will continue to do so. Its time to look at the population numbers seriously rather than simply funding the census for electrol reasons. Malawi population is still very young and predominantly in the reproductive age group. Conveying messeges of family planning will not change the high population growth. We will still grow at high rates and migration to the cities will continue. A comphrensive rethink of how we manage land and housing is required, particularly transparency through electronic databases. It should not favour the rich, politicians and those with a tendency to palm oil bureacrats. There are heaps of urban poor living in uninhabitable conditions. Such things fuel crime. How long are you going to live in getted communities with electric fences? Such things will not protect you. There are constant power outages that render your electric fences useless.

The benefits of a transparent, corrupt free land and housing allocation are many. Not only does it allow easy access to loans, but can help fight urban crime as well.


Tuesday, June 19, 2012

What sense have we made out of Vision 2020, MPRSP and MGDS?

Its not a question of allocating a lions share of the budget to a particular sector, but rather what the money actually does. Does it make Malawi a competitive country to do business, attract foreign direct investment, create jobs and improve welfare of our people? Our planning strategies seem to have been a pre-occupation of the former than the latter. Courtesy of shambolic politics of course. Our lives are still dependent mainly on “wooden hoe” farming.

In the mid 1990’s we took national planning to serious levels with all sorts of strategies but I fail to make sense of them. Nothing much seems to have changed. Sometimes I am tempted to think that the after independence 5 year cycle “Statement of Development Policies” were quite effective planning tool and the political leadership implemented most of the ideals.

I recall, just like many others, airing views to the vision 2020 team that visited Chancellor College sometime. Aspiring young students. One thing that I remember about the vision is to attain a middle income status by 2020. Put it simply, by 2020, Malawi will be at the level of Mauritius, Kenya, Botswana, Zambia and Ghana ( the latter two being latest additions to the group). The per capita incomes will average roughly over a thousand us dollars at purchasing power parity. Are we there yet? Does anyone still talk about the vision? You will be surprised that the document itself is not even easy to find in the planning departments and our political leaders don’t even know of its existence. You will be surprised if ever you had a chat with one of them and ask simple questions. Often you will end up with a sweeping response….”to reduce poverty..” as if they know who the poor are.
Then came the Malawi Poverty Reduction Strategy (MPRS), a World Bank obsession with its five pillars. One key thrust was poverty reduction through pro-poor growth. It became the back of national budgeting, atleast the way we were meant to believe, but I have serious doubts whether budget formulation changed. UNIMA still remained closed for long spells. Power outages a norm. Nurses and doctors still fled the country in record numbers. Teachers remained unpaid. These are all growth factors that benefit the common man.

Fast forward. Malawi Growth Strategy that matured into Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS) in the last reigns of Bakili Muluzi and then to his successor, the title laden Bingu wa Mutharika. Its resurgence was premised on the inadequacies of the MPRSP to address economic growth and is the new obsession. Do we expect a different outcome?

What sense have we made of all of them and what can we learn seriously? Firstly, I cannot lay blame on technicians in the public service whose sole duty is to translate political ideals into reality. They are great folks mostly under a very tough environment.

Just for once, we can think of our politicians as without any meaningful ideals. It has rendered these strategies somehow meaningless. Examples abound. How does one explain a politician’s mind that defects to PP from DPP even before the late president is buried citing PP great policies? They have not even read PP manifesto, if it exists, and spent much time casting the new found love. Could it be a zero-political ideology, whose objective is nothing other than winning an election?

I believe that in all these strategies we have not got our priorities right. We seem to prioritise everything and in the process, things remain the same. Our political leadership has always been pre-occupied with winning elections as an end rather than a means to formulate policies that lift us from poverty. Maybe it’s a question of one has to be rich simple because the other guy next door is poor? I see that through podium benevolence where tax payers money is handed out to buy votes. It keeps them in a permanent position of being rich with no regard to empowering the underprivileged. No priority or development strategy at all but to win an election. Possibly the JB government will set priorities in a different way , akin to needs of a modern aspiring nation. We might wish to note the Asian tigers of Singapore, Hongkong, Taiwan and Malaysia path to growth was partly a result of their investment in education.

Middle income countries are characterized by a sound education system at all levels with a lot of school-related investment put to good use. While the free primary education was a good measure, we failed to bring to justice all culprits in the 187million kwacha scheme at Education ministry. Wasted resources. Tales of Unima closures, underfunding of Mzuni, closure of the Polytechnic Board of Governors are some clear examples of how we value education. Unfortunately, it is only an educated population that can effectively participate in the 21st century labour market and compete at global levels. Failure to expand the capacity of technical colleges and a range of programs offered is symbolic how short our strategies have failed to deliver. An educated population is well informed and can make better choices. And when foreign companies fail to recruit locally we cry nationalism and racism. An educated woman for instance can make better choices about fertility and contribute to better health outcomes. Healthy kids too. They can concentrate and spend more time in school than the ill-equipped hospitals.

This is not the end of the story but to say that countries that are fast progressing have attracted a lot of foreign direct investment, not just opening a new mine or exploring for oil. A wide range of reforms. While the MDGS has focused on export le led growth, institutional reforms and infrastructure development remain very poor. It is not just a just of having export led growth, but rather the ability to attract foreign capital to produce for export. To me this does not require a whole bunch of a document but simple decisions that show seriousness about what we really aspire and want to be. A prosperous future for our kids. An energy crisis that seems not to end but has been known for ages is surely a recipe to scare away any potential investor. Unnecessarily bureaucratic procedures to set up businesses and repatriation of profits to foreign countries just scare away any potential capital injections, necessary to induce export led growth. Remember Kenya and Ethiopia airlines ticketing issue? You simply don’t get into foreign markets, a global brand, and experience through global networks is paramount. That is the knowledge foreign capital brings plus the ability to create jobs. But if we live in environments where we even stifle our companies like Nation Publications, for simply telling a story, it scares investors.

To achieve meaningful growth, we need capital and labour, and more important its efficacy. Our education is shambolic and that is where we train our labour force. Similarly, we need a very effective health care system to ensure our labour force remains effective once they choke in the line of duty. Technology and innovative systems of production can easily be absorbed if our workforce is educated and healthy. These are key social functions that government must provide effectively. It will definitely pull us out of “wooden hoe farming”, a tenet that seems to define our way of life. An enabling environment such as energy, roads, telecommunications and reform of business rules is a must.

In short, I must say, the three strategies have been great works but have not articulated our priorities in a manner that reflects our vision and priorities in a global competitive environment. We seem to have been overtaken or hijacked by interest and lobby groups plus certain rogue external elements with their one size fits all approach. The basics are obvious and should be priotised. Education, health, infrastructure and reform of business laws and the banking system.

Malawi Tourism Requires Mindset Overhaul

Sounding harsh, but in my own right, I consider myself well travelled and competent enough to talk about tourism business mediocrity in my country. An industry that has potential but is beset by our business as usual mindset, get rich quick-ponzi scheme mentality, horrible service delivery, disorganization and rampant overcharging. We need a huge overhaul in how we can develop this industry and appropriate potential gains.

Tobacco earnings have been falling for some years. Tourism has been touted as a potential money earner. The mining business at Kayelekera has become a talk amid cries of a not so impressive deal. Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan stepped in, closure of nuclear energy in Japan followed, European countries too are considering the same, and Germany has just shut down some nuclear reactors. Prices of Uranium have since gone down. We cant bank our hopes on a clandestinely negotiated Kayelekera 15% stake in the right of global downturn in uranium prices. We need to take our diversification seriously and walk the talk on tourism. The tune is now boring, if not monotonous. We are in a global world and events that happen elsewhere affect us.

Tourism remains a potential if we get things right. However, Malawi is not the only country in the world or SADC. Others countries are there and a potential tourist will surely weigh options. It might include service delivery, cost of services such as accommodation, health, general use of credit cards amongst others. Remember a tourist is not necessarily a rich person. Some are mere students that save for many years to travel the world. Don’t overcharge. But we love to overprice our stuff.

In Malawi we have a whole ministry of tourism, proof that we take this industry seriously, at-least on paper. If I may ask how many people know about Malawi out there? You would be amazed at how little is known about this country. Sometimes, I am at pains to explain that we are surrounded by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, which apparently are better known. Is it because we are a “God” fearing country? Others know Malawi as “that country where pop star Madonna adopted David and Mercy”. Comical indeed. But what does the ministry of tourism do? Take local journalists in their 32 seater bus around the country visiting doggy night clubs? Is that what you call tourism promotion and how you sell your country? Or is it the obsession to collect the so called tourism marketing levy and justify such tours? Even journalists are tired of these trips.

You will be amazed at how other countries use international cable television to market their destinations. Ever heard of “remarkable Indonesia, incredible India, the South African Shabeen queen, Malaysia truly Asia slogans” on CNN? I last saw a documentary on National Geographic Channel on Malawi, unfortunately it was showcasing how Marijuana is grown in the Northern Highlands.. Why not sub-contract to an international marketing company if we can’t do it? There are lots of international travel companies such as Expedia, Flight Centre and many more. Our embassy staff are busy welcoming visiting politicians or those connected to the regime at any point, and cannot be entrusted with marketing our country. In earnest.
For instance where are tourism offices? Ministry head quarters at city center and the regional office in Blantyre. Not sure whether there is another one in Mzuzu. And the usually unmamaned desks at KIA. If for instance I visit Mangochi, I need to find a tourist office that has information about all I can see in Mangochi and surrounding areas. There is none. If I visit Karonga, there ought to be a tourism office there fully equipped to inform me of things to do in Karonga. Its not enough to say we have a lake and overpriced hotels along the shores of Lake Malawi. Google does not have all solutions.

Do we really have an idea what tourists want and therefore market the country accordingly? I don’t need to talk about Malawi embassies. The story is not new. They have outdated websites and there is little information for any prospective visitor apart from a list of countries that are visa exempt or link to an out-dated MIPA website. Check the Ministry of Tourism website. It has the name of the minister, their plan and mandate or objectives something like. Who really cares about these things? A would be visitor doesn’t require such information but what Malawi has to offer, and it has to be up to date.

Then there is the private sector whose mannerism is as outdated as 1616 Jasper Boccaro. When you visit a hotel, restaurant or any other place of interest, you are often treated as a bother. The service delivery seems to be reserved for a privileged few. In most cases, it is considered a privilege to partake in some of the services yet one is paying his or her own money. Customer service in this country is a new thing and we are too bossy,yet we expect someone to pay for the services. If you have flown Africa’s Most Friendly Airline on a number of occasions you probably know what I am talking about. Cases of cabin crew shouting at passengers in disrespect for simply asking an extra pint of an over-diluted glass of Sobo. You do that to a client, and if they were foreigner, and you expect them to come to this country? “God fearing or Satan trodden” nation. In their sedated state presumably. I doubt.

And the ponzi get rich quick scheme of Malawian businesses. Why would one pay US100 a day for renting a car? This not a flat rate, but add charges per kilometer and daily insurance. And then factor in USD300/night Hotel room. Then a USD50 lunch per person in our hotels. This very beef from Chikwawa or cows that have walked hundreds of kilometers from Mzimba, or mudfish (kampango) from Lake Malawi really? We probably need to know that being a tourist does not necessary mean one is stinking rich or they have won a mega Euro lottery. Most of the blokes that come to visit are just average guys that have worked so hard, saved to travel. But our businesses are so obsessed with making quick bucks from potential tourists thinking they are madly dollar endowed.

We need to understand that other countries are better off than us and offer reasonably priced packages. There is more and much better out there and reasonably priced. A tourist would rather go to Mauritius, Zanzibar, Kenya, South Africa, Namibia or Zambia, where services are reasonably priced but of relatively good quality. Not the screaming front office personnel, neither red eyed angry waitresses or bossy hotel managers, loan-shark minded car rental operators. There is no need to revisit the theory of demand and its determinants. But for the sake of rookies, I will say price and quality of service go hand in hand to attract a potential tourist to this “God fearing country”. We cant always blame “Mose wa Lero (RIP). He found this and left as it is.

To colleagues in the Ministry of Tourism (including the Minister) and various umbrella organization like Tourism Association of Malawi I have some questions. What have you done in the last 2 years to market Malawi as a destination for tourism? What media of marketing Malawi did you use? Why should a tourist come to Malawi and not other countries in the region? Why don’t we have tourist information centres across all the districts and main border posts? This is how you do it.