The Malawi Adventure

On the 18th January 2016, I flew to Malawi to meet a Government owned agency that owns and manages over 6000 built housing assets, to present the concept of the Tiguri Green Village.

The meetings were spread across a few days and included time with the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, the Lilongwe Water Board, a well-known bank and the Malawi Trade Centre.

My first and remaining impression of Malawi was that it is a beautiful country with amazing, friendly people. Nothing is too much trouble and besides me never asking for a thing I was offered help in any way I wanted whether I realised I needed it or not. I was never asked for anything in return. This was a refreshing experience in comparison to South Africa and Malawi is a much poorer and less developed country.

The first meeting with the housing agency took us to Area 43 in Lilongwe. To my surprise this developing area was and is considered a higher end development, not the rural poor application I had tried to promote. Nevertheless, as we drove through the red coloured, pressed (though use) clay roads, I saw many large, double storey houses being built. On closer inspection of the materials used, red bricks, I was surprised to see the stockpiled bricks were eroding… from rain. We stopped the car and I walked over to a pile of bricks and picked one up. I could crumble it with my fingers which were left sandy and stained. I didn’t comment and asked if I could keep one.

The majority of bricks used in Malawi and in these “posh” developments are these very bricks and it begs the questions… “How long will these houses last?”

It costs them a couple of hundred thousand dollars to supply and build these high end 4 or 5 bedroom houses, however, because there is a serious lack of manufacturing capability Malawians make do with the tools they have at their disposal. They make bricks by hand from the clay soil that makes up much of the composition of the land throughout the country. Kiln-baked bricks are much more durable than sun-baked ones.

Once the bricks are sun-dried, they are collected into a pile and stacked to build legs, which are gradually widened so that once they are around one metre tall, they meet each other and form a single structure with spaces underneath, for the fires. The entire structure is then covered in mud creating an oven effect that encloses all the bricks. Slow-burning wood is put in and the fires lit under the arches and there we have it… 1 x brick kiln.

We walked a short distance to the middle of a sloping corn field and the deputy CEO gathered us in a circle and asked everyone to briefly introduce themselves. She pointed out four landmarks and said “this is the site we have allocated”.

The area spanned some 8 hectares and I tried to picture how many houses could fit into this plot. The views were also amazing and I couldn’t help thinking that I wouldn’t mind living here either!

I was shown an A3 piece of paper and on it was an outline of the site. It had been divided into squares and the deputy CEO explained that they envisage 50 houses being built. We discussed the slope of the land in relation to water and sewerage infrastructure and I prompted the discussion on whether they envisaged a low / medium of higher end development. I expected the latter as the answer and was not disappointed.

The next morning we went to meet the agency again, this time at their offices. There were more representatives than yesterday and I handed out my presentation since we did not have a projector available. I made a note to self that the next time I come here or to other meetings in Africa I will invest in one of these hand held projectors because I think it would be much more effective.

I took them through, page by page, explaining how I had arrived at this point and what the Tiguri Green Village is meant to be in its “purest” form. The room was silent all the way through the presentation and when I opened up the floor to questions there was almost a silence too long for it to be comfortable until the CEO finally spoke.

“I think the idea is wonderful and it would do very well in Malawi.” She said. I wasn’t sure if I actually made a sound of relief but I took a breath and felt my confidence flood back.

The CEO explained that they would like to start by building a mix of three and four bedroom double storey houses which would be rented out to mainly to government staff since they are the main market who can afford the payments.

Despite my original idea remaining “a solution for the rural poor” I supported their idea because it is becoming apparent, from this experience and other, that to achieve my goal I might need to start from the other end, so to speak. The bottom line is these things cost money and the Tiguri Green Village is still only a concept in so far as a demonstration village existing. Yes, the build system and technology is there, the anaerobic and water technologies exist, as do the solar products and farming technology, etc. but in so far as these components all existing together, on one big site… the answer here is still… not yet.

The truest form of my idea is that by building a complete Tiguri Green Village infrastructure I believe, and more people are beginning to support, that through simple assumptions, backed by calculations we will know how many houses, digesters, solar panels, water purifiers, and how much land needs to be allocated to vertical and cattle farming, commercial space for production and businesses, school rooms, etc., so that the Tiguri Green Village creates sufficient opportunity to sustain and employ the people who choose to live there so they can live well and prosper.

Similar calculations are needed for this Malawi project, despite the key assumption that the residents are employed elsewhere. This development won’t have farming technology, nor schools and businesses but it will have houses, anaerobic digestion, solar products and water purification technology.

The remainder of the meeting was spent discussing the development, answering various technological questions and agreeing the next steps.

During my very limited free time I met a young, local entrepreneur who offered to show me around Lilongwe. I explained why I was here and he said he had some interesting things to show me.

James, who won't mind mentioning his name, had planned a whole afternoon personal tour for me. We started, by going to the local market and I did, as probably every tourist does, by buying a stone hand carved statue and several other trinkets for my wife and children.

Then we headed to recent development that he described as a white elephant. I don’t want to go into any specific detail but this large scale development was utter crap… excuse my French. The houses from a distance, in this gated community, looked lovely the closer you got the worse it got. None of the houses were occupied and James doubted whether they ever would be. He managed to convince the sales agent to let us in under the disguise that I was a prospective buyer. The salesman jumped to attention, as I also would although so quickly I did wonder when last someone had come to see him.

The development has been going on for a couple of years. The problem is not the layout of the estate, the design of the houses (outside) but in the quality of materials used and the finishes. They have two, three and four bedroom “elegant, comfortable and gorgeous” houses with prices ranging from USD65,000 for the two bedroom, up to USD 120,000 for the “gorgeous four bedroom house”.

I asked to see the gorgeous one.

I was shocked but managed to hide it. Not only did this new, gorgeous house already have flaking paint and pealing varnish on almost every outside door and window panel, they also appeared not to be sealed properly. Should the rain be blowing in the wrong direction, as it clearly did, water would come in. There were water stains inside the house. My sales guy did assure me that they would repaint it before I moved in. The kitchens were designed for umpa lumpa’s (and I am not the tallest of people) and I couldn’t help feeling disappointed and sorry for the alleged buyers.

I felt guilty for leading the salesman on because he was a local guy and I know how hard it is to find a job and goodness knows how much he is paid but I wanted to know what the deal they offer is.

Step one: Pay USD 800.00 non-refundable

“Why?”

“To register your interest”

Step two: pay 15% to receive the house deed but you can’t move in until you pay an additional 35% and you only have two months to do this and if you fail you don’t get your 15% back either.

“Tough” I said.

“Yes, I know.” Said the salesman. “Almost no Malawian can do this”

Step 3, once you have paid 50% is that you have between 18 and 24 months to pay the balance.

“What happens if I can’t”

“I don’t know” said the salesman. “We haven’t got that far yet”.

This “Dream Town” left me feeling very confident about the opportunity I have identified in Malawi. I also saw another reason why this housing agency were open to see me. I always ask myself the question “why do they want me?”

James took me to see other properties. These were also in Area 43 but a different Section.

James knew the security guy who gladly let us into somebody’s “rented out” property. These one and two bedroom single storey houses go for min USD900 pcm and the larger ones on the USD 1500pcm level.

Again, they looked lovely from the outside but was shocked at the finish and quality. The opportunity gap only got wider because I know what we can build for and if this is the level of finish to beat for the budget then the decision is theirs if they want to reduce the budget or give an even higher spec finish to the properties. I steer towards the former.

I also saw the new football stadium. It is a grand object and I can see the surrounding area developing perhaps even as Twickenham (a place of reference for me) has in the coming years?

James also took me to an informal settlement, or “slum area” not because I asked but because he wanted to show me. It was as it looks in the pictures and as I took pictures I was sent a threatening gun gesture by a man who was maybe offended (I understood immediately why and felt guilty). I quickly put my phone down and cast an apologetic, both hands up and smiled. By this stage we were quite deep inside this off road village and James suggested we turn round because it actually was not very safe. He did tell me before it might not be safe but I wanted to go in as I have done before in South Africa. As we turned round I waved again at the same man and tried to make distant eye contact. He looked back and after a moment… smiled back.

The last stop before heading on our way back to Lilongwe town centre was to visit the final resting place of Hastiings Banda. Malawian's are very proud of him and I blushed because I always thought Joyce Banda was his daughter. Very quickly was I set straight because sadly she was surrounded by a lot of controversy whereas Dr. Hastings is widely regarded as a caring, good President who did a lot for his people.

Shortly after we pulled out of the car park we were pulled over by an apparent traffic cop and James was asked for his license. This time, I was not in a diplomatic car and quickly ushered through, poor James got into a huge argument as the alleged officer tried to shake him up for a couple of thousand Kwacha… the reason… running a red light. I couldn’t even remember seeing a traffic light. James protested and eventually gave him 500 Kwacha. James explained that if they do not have a certain type of hat on then they are not traffic cops which is why he argued. The game here is to take your driving license and shake you down for a payment and unless you pay an on the spot “fine” they keep your license and it is a hassle to get a new one. He said 500 Kwacha is worth it and this is standard practice in Malawi - pity! Beleive it or not, the same thing happened another two times before we got back to the hotel but on both occasions I paid the “fine” because it was beginning to get expensive for James and he didn't ask for a lot more to drive me round the whole afternoon.

In the evenings spent at my hotel I had begun to get to know the manager, a chap from Belgium who went backpacking five years ago and stayed! My hotel, The Woodlands, is a lovely place situated in a wood, complete with wild monkeys and next to a small zoo. Yes, they have lions and you can hear them!!!

On my last evening I asked to help out in the kitchen with dinner service because I was on my own and thought it would be fun. The hotel was not busy so the manager, Ian, welcomed it. The kitchen was divided into two sections. One serving Indian cuisine and the other, where I helped out, served steaks, burgers and fish. As a hobby cook and working in restaurants in a previous life I worked with their two chef’s and together we delivered that evenings service. After service, I couldn’t help myself giving a few pointers because both guys were not trained professionals and perhaps from watching too many Ramsey Kitchen Nightmares I saw several areas to comment. The resulting ideas came from another impromptu meeting the next day with the manager and he asked if I would go through his menu with him. He decided he wanted to simplify it by reducing its size and focus more on local dishes and fresh ingredients - who would have thought. ;-)

I would highly recommend, if you ever go to Malawi, to stay at the Woodlands. The rooms are great, the people wonderful and I sure by now, the food is even better.

I left for the airport at 11am the day I flew. My flight was at 1pm and my next stop… Cape Town.

Malawi is an awesome country and the follow up trip is making shapes as we speak…

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