Development engineering and its social obstacles in Malawi

By Maximilian Haberthür

A water point in Malawi using the Afridev hand water pump. Photographed by Tim Connell. 


During the talk given by Muthi Nhlema, he made a thought-provoking statement: “Poverty is an asset”. This phrase stuck with me.

The word poverty, carrying a negative connotation and symbolising something people want to avoid, is being paired with the word asset, a resource with economic value, something valuable that people want to achieve. So how come that Muthi uses these contradictory words together?


Muthi Nhlema is the team leader of an organisation called BASEflow, which aims to improve access to safe drinking water in Malawi by helping maintain the many water hand pumps used in rural areas and making the use of groundwater sources more sustainable.


In his talk, he discusses the difficulties he faced during his years of working in a NGO. Difficulties not only of a physical nature but also of a social one. To illustrate Muthi’s statement, I want to discuss a story, about a reoccurring problem he often encountered when working with communities in Malawi.


After successfully helping a fishing village increase the amount of caught fish Muthi later revisited the village to check up on them. To his surprise, they only caught 20 kg of fish, despite the expectation that they would catch 100 kg. Therefore, the community asked for more help. During his stay, one of the residents later confessed, that they were indeed successful and caught around 100 kg of fish, but overnight they sold 80 kg in the next village. 

This is one of his examples how the image of poverty can and will be used to gain means and assets. It also illustrates how social obstacles and its dynamics are probably one of the most complex problems we face in development engineering, also because they hardly can be quantified.

With that being said, I want to focus on the essence of this problem and on what Muthi furthermore elaborated. 


Transparency and coordination

There are many NGOs with a considerable amount of resources helping everywhere they can, but the difficult part is effectively allocating these resources. Since a lot of NGOs work independently, the coordination of allocation processes can be quite challenging. Muthi also recalls several instances where two different NGOs had helped the same village build two identical elements of needed infrastructure, in this case water towers. One of the elements could have been used in another village in need.


Furthermore, NGOs need to improve their investment transparency for better coordination and must follow standards and accountability mechanisms to minimize wasted resources. This also means working closely with the government to provide and share important data. 


Source: BASEflow


Lack of vision for larger capacity schemes

With Malawi’s heavy reliance on the water hand pump, maintaining them becomes a factor of increasing importance in the sustainability of water resources. This leads me to another observation I made during Muthi’s talk.


Many of the rural communities don’t have the financial resources to invest in big infrastructure. They rely on simple, cost efficient and robust solutions, like the Afridev hand pump. Also, because maintaining and operating them is mostly done by the community itself. The Afridev hand pump helped increase access to safe drinking water immensely. But despite its success, I cannot help but think of it as a temporary solution. Especially in regards of the growing population which is set to double until 2030. 


This form of localized management creates another problem: The lack of vision for larger capacity schemes. Communities will need to collaborate in the future, to work on bigger, longer-lasting infrastructure projects. It therefore is crucial to emphasize the importance of sustainability in the long term. Malawi will need to innovate their way of maintaining and operating the water hand pumps as an important part of their infrastructure, but they also need to come up with new ways to sustain their growing population.


To end this blog post I want to add. Especially in social matters there will always be people following their own agenda, obstructing the progress of others. But besides that, there also highly motivated people like Muthi who inspire and are doing everything to ensure a sustainable future.