Low-cost urban housing in Malawi -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Low-cost urban housing in Malawi

By Samson Nyam


Habitat for Humanity Malawi (HFHM) was established with the aim of reducing poverty housing in the Republic of Malawi. With a per capita income of US$160, Malawi ranks among the world’s least developed countries. About 52 percent of Malawi’s population of 12 million live below the poverty line.

There is a clear need for low-income decent urban housing in Malawi, considering the stark reality of migration from rural to urban areas, and the unsanitary and poor structural condition of houses in the slums around urban centers. It is believed that the provision of decent, durable houses will help to alleviate or even eradicate poverty, while better sanitary conditions will definitely lead to improved health conditions of the residents.

The Area 49 low-cost housing project HFHM commenced the Area 49 low-cost housing project, a Greenfield [1] project, at Lilongwe, Malawi, after receiving donations from private donors. The project aimed at improving the housing conditions of families by resettling 250 low-income families from illegal settlements into new houses in a new community in Area 49, a few kilometers away from their present location. Homeowners were offered loans by HFHM to build their house in stages according to a fixed design.

Prior to the commencement of construction, HFHM started to raise awareness for the project in the Mgona community. Family selection criteria specifically targeted low-income households, i.e., families with a household income between MK3,500 and MK9,000 per month (US$25 to US$65), and living in a house with a thatched roof or a roof of bad iron sheets. Families were also expected to fulfill several conditions before being considered as partners. Some of these conditions included a down payment of MK3,000 within two months of their application being approved, and the provision of bricks, firewood to burn the bricks, sand and unskilled labor for the construction of their house. Most of the family selection criteria and conditions of partnership used for the project were the ones being used by HFHM in the rural housing projects that they were traditionally used to doing.

The major problem faced by the Area 49 project was the difficulty encountered in finding participants for the new project. Despite all the awareness raised for the project in the Mgona community, only very few people indicated interest in the project. To get more families to participate in the project, the catchment area was extended to the Mtsiliza and Mtandile communities. However, the difficulty in finding participants persisted. Potential participants were discouraged by the fact that once they signed the contract it took a long time—about a year—for house construction.

To encourage more families to participate in the project, HFHM hired three community mobilizers to raise awareness for the project. Some of the house selection criteria were dropped because they were based on HFHM’s selection criteria in rural areas and were inappropriate for the urban setting. To encourage more participants, HFHM started providing burnt bricks and firewood to the homeowners.

Evaluation results

An evaluation exercise on the Area 49 low-cost housing project carried out in May 2006 confirmed the following:

  • Most of the families in the target group did not meet the HFHM family selection criteria (most of which were more appropriate to rural than urban contexts). The family selection exercise was eventually dropped to get more families to participate in the project. More detailed research in the preparatory stage would have indicated this.
  • The income level of the target group was very low, and the home loan was not affordable to most of the families in the target group.
  • A key to financial sustainability is to design these projects in a way that is affordable based on the income of the community relative to the city and country in which it is located. Standards need to be flexible and designs need to conform to the affordable budget envelope. The poor usually build incrementally and in stages using local building materials.
  • The house designs should take into consideration the income levels of the target group. Housing standards should be reviewed to facilitate the development of affordable housing and the use of durable local building materials without sacrificing health, safety and other quality requirements.
  • The communities were not fully aware of the product being offered and the requirements to participate in the project. This was corrected later on in the project.
  • The communities were not involved in design and implementation of the project.
  • Community participation is vital for success in the development of a new community. They know their problems better than practitioners outside. Getting them involved will give them a sense of “ownership” and increase the project’s chances for sustainability.
  • The challenges encountered by HFHM earlier on in the project were identified and surmounted. The project is now on track and should be completed by December 2007 as scheduled.

Samson Nyam is a civil engineer by profession. He currently serves as the urban habitat specialist at Habitat for Humanity’s Africa and Middle East area office.

He may be contacted at snyam@habitat.org.