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Thinking Development

By Christopher Guta, PhD:

Before and after the elections on May 21 2019, I spent time examining the manifestos of the competing parties. The effort before the elections was warranted due to my desire to inform readers of the issues addressed in the party manifestos so that votes are cast with both hearts and minds. When the election results were announced and it was declared that Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) had returned to power, I drew attention to additional issues in the DPP manifesto with the intention that we should all hold the party accountable for the promises made in its manifesto.

One of the promises I identified and wrote about was that the DPP-led government will work towards investing “close to K2.7 trillion in infrastructure alone in the period 2019 to 2024”. Indeed, poor infrastructure increases the cost of doing business, thereby reducing earnings. In the case of road networks, for example, transporters of raw materials imported from Mozambique by the company I work for are asking for an increase in rates because of the poor quality of the road in Mozambique caused by Cyclone Idai. My thoughts on development in today’s entry relate to Malawi’s road infrastructure.

The National Transport Master Plan notes that Malawi’s road network covers a total distance of 15,451 km with about 22 percent classified as main roads. Although only 26 percent of the total road network is paved, the good news is that most of the main roads are paved. The bad news is that the paved roads have a high degree of wear and tear and their shoulders are degraded. Internationally, road quality is measured by the so-called International Roughness Index, an open-ended scale running from zero. The smaller the number, the better the road quality. Using this measure, only 30 percent of our paved roads are classified as good. Regarding the M1 portion that runs from Nsanje to Karonga, only 32 percent is good. I frequently use the M1 portion that runs from Blantyre to Nchalo, a distance of about 73km and only 15 percent of the road is said to be of good quality.

On Friday March 8 2019, floods – also caused by Cyclone Idai – cut the Blantyre to Nchalo road just before the Kamuzu Bridge. The immediate impact on me was that I could not get to my workplace. Road users who, for whatever reason, had to cross either way had to pay enterprising Malawians who carried individuals across the impassable 20-metre stretch. I must commend the Roads Authority for quickly constructing a diversion such that I was able to get to my workplace the next working day which was Monday March 11.

However, I am concerned about the quality of the workmanship of the now rehabilitated patch because it has raised the roughness index. When crossing the patch, you can feel the bump. This level of workmanship is repeated on many of our paved roads that are rehabilitated from time to time. I have in mind the portion of the M1 Road between Phalula and Chingeni. Although it was recently resurfaced and, most parts are barely acceptable, some are not. Take an interest to assess the road next time you use it.

National Construction Industry Council regulates road contractors and I know that the council makes effort to improve competences of employees working in the road construction sector. The National State of Science and Technology Report takes an interest in these efforts by informing Parliament the number of beneficiaries and types of training given to such cadres as road construction foremen. The effect of this training, however, is not as expected if the workmanship I have complained about above represents the perception of other users who have crossed the rehabilitated patch just before the Kamuzu Bridge on the Blantyre to Nchalo road. I should also cite the poor workmanship of a recently constructed urban road that runs to Sigerege from off-Namiwawa to Chilomoni road in Blantyre. Its lifespan is going to be very short.

As the DPP-led government invests whatever portion of the K2.7 trillion set aside for infrastructure during the next five years on new roads as well as rehabilitating existing ones, I reiterate the need for quality of the works not to be compromised. We need not create new institutions to ensure that this is the case. I believe that those who are vested with the responsibility of ensuring that Malawi has good quality road infrastructure will up their game so that incidents as those I have flagged above should be the exception rather than the rule. Since – and this is according to the World Bank – road roughness is a primary factor in determining trade-offs between road quality and user cost, doing so will move Malawi’s development agenda forward.

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