Survey of urban poor settlements in Lilongwe 2014


In a rapidly urbanizing world, Malawi remains one of the least urbanized countries in Africa. Nevertheless, it has not escaped the challenges posed by the phenomenon. Malawi’s capital Lilongwe is estimated to be growing at a rate of 4.3% per year, and has even been projected to break the one million population mark as early as 2015.

The benefits of urban citizenship are however not enjoyed equally by Lilongwe’s residents. As many as 76% of residents are estimated to live in sub-standard housing and/or informal settlements. These areas are characterized by lack of access to public services, tenure insecurity, and inadequate housing. A quarter of the city’s residents are also officially estimated to live below the poverty line, with 9% considered ultra-poor.

In mid-2014 the Lilongwe Urban Poor People’s Network (LUPPEN) and ActionAid Malawi conducted a survey of 33 settlements in Lilongwe in which LUPPEN is active. The objective of the study was to assess the current level of access to public services and participation in urban governance in the settlements, and complement existing studies by providing up-to-date data on key indicators as well as statistical analysis across settlements. The survey covered seven key topics: Governance, leadership, and institutions; History and demographics; Land tenure and eviction threats; Access to public services;
Settlement assets, security, and social capital; Hazards and risks; and The future.

Overall, the study found that Lilongwe City is failing the residents of its poor settlements. However, the study also revealed heterogeneity among the settlements surveyed, with a handful of settlements displaying more ‘urban’ characteristics and thereby higher living standards, while a third are best described as rural. Roughly half of the settlements are at some level of transition from urban to rural, displaying differing levels of formality and access to public services. To allow for comparisons across groups, each settlement was graded on a ten-point scale and consequently categorized as Rural (33%),
Transitional-2 (33%), Transitional-1 (15%) or Urban (18%).

While the study was unable to collect reliable data on settlements’ population sizes, a concentration of poverty in the north of the city was identified. Not only were 64% of settlements surveyed found to be located in northern T/A Chitukula, but 71% of settlements in the Traditional Authority fell into the categories Rural and Transitional-2, implying high informality and limited access to services.

The study also found that city’s poor settlements appear to be growing. Respondents in 82% of the settlements indicated that there has been a substantial increase in the population of their settlement over the past five years, while 18% indicated that there had been a small increase. Not a single settlement stated that the population had either decreased or remained the same.

Residents in the settlements face several challenges. The most common challenge cited by respondents in the settlements surveyed was access to public services (57.5%), followed by economic challenges (28%). Overall, accessing health care was cited a problem in 80% of the settlements surveyed. Access to water remains a challenge in almost half of the settlements, despite there being access to water from the Lilongwe Water Board in 85% of the settlements. Access to finance (or capital) is a challenge in 70% of the settlements, while unemployment is a problem in half of the settlements surveyed.

The survey found that customary land management remains common in Lilongwe. Chiefs play a direct role in land management in roughly half of the settlements by either selling or allocating land. Data analysis found that the age of a settlement increases the likelihood that land in the settlement is managed in a customary fashion. Customary land management is also strongly correlated with residents lacking tenure security documentation.

Similarly, a settlement being unplanned is strongly correlated with lack of tenure security documentation. Transect walks through each settlement surveyed determined that 27% of settlements are planned, while 9% are partly planned. The majority (64%) of the settlements surveyed are unplanned. Despite prevailing tenure insecurity, evictions are currently not a major concern; only five settlements (15%) reported more substantive eviction threats/fears.

Residents are divided between home owners and tenants in 30 of the settlements surveyed. In the majority (64%) of settlements with tenants, over 50% of the population is estimated to rent their homes. Monthly rents for a basic room are around 2,000 Malawi kwacha lower in unplanned settlements compared to planned settlements.

The aim of this report is to let the data speak for itself. On the whole, however, it is clear that residents of Lilongwe’s poor settlements face enduring challenges and indignities in their daily lives. This sounds a warning for the future. The strong population growth experienced by Lilongwe puts pressure on the city’s managers and available resources, and means that the challenges highlighted in this report will grow in magnitude unless prompt and concerted action is taken.

There are two main dimensions for what action is needed. On the one hand, the government must work with residents in existing poor settlements to develop participatory, community-led upgrading processes. On the other, it must at the same time expedite allocation of affordable, serviced land for newcomers, to prevent the development of entrenched problem areas in the city. The bottom line for the city is that only by embracing urbanization and the government taking pro-poor measures to manage urban growth will Lilongwe develop into an equitable city for all.