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Transporting economic development

Transportation infrastructure is one of the most important assets for the development of any nation. While there is no dispute as to the critical role that transportation infrastructure plays in economic growth, the nation has for a long time lacked enough investment in transportation infrastructure. There are several reasons for insufficient investment and it is not the intention of this article to start listing those problems. That is why many previous administrations in Malawi have tried to invest in this critical aspect of infrastructure in Malawi.

Take, for example. the road between Dowa and Lilongwe or the Karonga Chitipa Road. Those that live in Dowa or Chitipa will attest to you the many instances that the transport infrastructure has added speed and efficiency to the individuals’ progress as well as progress of the whole district. Both Dowa and Chitipa are districts that have relied on agriculture and its related operations for its populations’ wellbeing. Transport is a very important catalyst to the well-functioning of economic activities. Proper transportation infrastructure does not only connect one geographical area to another but it ensures that people can move from one place to another. Human movement is crucial to the production and distribution of goods. Poor transportation networks are a cost to society and most of these costs are actually paid for by the citizens and cost of delays come on top and are priced in every item. For movement of essential commodities by road that include perishable items, it creates enormous wastes. Lack of refrigeration facilities makes the matter worse for logistics costs for such items.

Without proper transport infrastructure, development will remain an illusion. Malawi’s transportation infrastructure requires substantial capital investment because many of the roads and bridges built decades earlier are now reaching the end of their expected lifespan. For the last few decades, the nation has benefited from investments from the Bingu wa Mutharika era with a lack of investment during the People’s Party regime when transportation infrastructure spending went down and it is good that the government is now massively investing in transportation infrastructure.

While there have been efforts in the road networks where new roads are being constructed and the era of potholes on the M1 Road between Blantyre and Lilongwe is well gone. Unlike during the United Democratic Front era when driving between Blantyre and Lilongwe was a zigzag affair, there are regular maintenance programmes on the main roads. But maintenance is a function of the quality of the initial road construction itself. It is therefore important that the design and construction of these roads should be properly supervised to ensure that quality is maintained.

Those who have travel through air will attest to the fact that there is an upgrade of the two main airports in Malawi – Chileka and Kamuzu International. It is quite annoying that, in 2018, for someone to travel outside Malawi from the North, they have to cover over 300 kilometres to Lilongwe. This is an unacceptable normality. It is actually easier, cheaper and more convenient to travel by road to Mbeya in Tanzania and get on a plane if one is in Karong and Chitipa. This situation should not have been allowed. The airport in Mzuzu should be a priority. It is not for political reasons but simply a question of economics. Karonga needs a proper airport and so does Mangochi. Let us move from planning to construction on these airports. Time is not on our side as a nation.

The only issue that remains is the rail infrastructure. It is time the government made massive investments in the rail network in Malawi. It is physically possible to have a railway line connecting Mzuzu to Lilongwe. It might be expensive in the short run but is a massive asset for the nation. Can you imagine how many people would save on the need to drive to Mbeya to collect imported cars? One rail trip would carry over a 100 vehicles. The cost of transport of goods and passengers over a long distance is comparatively cheap in case of railway transport. Railway transport is suitable for transportation of bulky, heavy and cheap goods over a long distance.

A very efficient road network with a weak rail or vice versa would not create a holistic solution to the cost of transportation in Malawi. The road by itself is a matter of economy; it was the earliest invention of humans that allowed movement of people and goods to happen, without which no economic activity could have been performed efficiently. Developed economies of the world developed because they created the road infrastructure well before they created cities and towns, not the other way. The role of road and rail in making trade happen is fundamental. Malawi should not miss out on this! Where are the railways?

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