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Low-Cost Housing in Malawi

Keywords: Community Participation & Urban Governance
Homelessness & Housing


Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) works in partnership with local communities and the government to build simple, decent houses and latrines. A locally-elected committee chooses applicants based on total combined income (less than US$43 monthly - rural areas; less than US$57 monthly - urban areas), their willingness to provide volunteer labour (transporting all materials from the HFH office, providing all bricks, performing all unskilled labour), and their willingness and ability to repay the cost of the inputs. Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) provides all materials and skilled labour. Repayments are put into a revolving fund which stays in the community to build more houses and latrines.


Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) works with the local, district, and national government as well as with traditional authorities (chiefs and headmen) in planning and implementation. In addition, each community where Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) works is required to form a locally-elected committee to represent the community of need. In this way, everyone from beneficiaries to government leaders have a say in the operations of the programme. Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) has an excellent reputation country-wide for successfully housing low-income groups. The organization is overseen by an indigenous Malawian Board of Directors.

In operation for 9 years, Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) has been learning from its mistakes and refining its methodology. The entire scheme is based on partnerships from the boardroom to the beneficiary; this diversity and input strengthens the organization. By providing a hand-up, not a hand-out, the programme relies on the participation of the beneficiaries.

The key to the programme's success is that community is emphasized over output. The average constructing community builds less than 10 houses per month. But as the work is facilitated at the community level, the combined number of people being housed grows exponentially. Further, by teaching people that they can overcome their own problems by forming local committees and developing self-help revolving funds, thousands are being housed.

The sustainability of the organization rests on the following precepts:
- Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) is a Christian organization.

- Strong partnerships are formed at all levels, encouraging active participation.

- Education meetings explain the scheme to the community and to applicants.

- Home owners are required to provide volunteer labour, thereby increasing their commitment to their house and the scheme, and also decreasing house cost.

- Home owners are required to repay the cost of all inputs provided by Habitat for Humanity (Malawi); while no profit or interest is charged, repayments are indexed to the cost of cement (the biggest input in the house) to protect against inflation. Repayments are used to build more houses and latrines in the community, promoting social responsibility.

- Houses are inexpensive and affordable; the house design is culturally acceptable.

Partnerships are foundational to Habitat for Humanity (Malawi). Partnerships are formed at all levels for the strengthening and furthering of the work. Key partnerships are listed below:

- With Habitat for Humanity International, the parent organization, to provide: partial funding, training and education materials, volunteers, accountability.

- With local, regional, and national governmental bodies to provide: land, infrastructure, tax- and duty-free status, public support, advice, technical support, resources and services.

- With various funding agencies, to assist with housing, water, conservation efforts, and other projects: World Learning Incorporated, Homeless International, diplomatic community, business community, service organizations.

- With volunteer agencies: Peace Corps, WUSC (World University Service of Canada), International Executive Service Corps.

- With local leadership, to provide land and other forms of support: chiefs, headmen, church and community leaders, locally-elected committees.

- With home owners, to provide: an understanding of needs, service on local committees, volunteer labour, repayments of inputs.

Perhaps the biggest problem facing most Southern countries today is urban migration. The poor, under-educated rural population is increasingly moving into urban centres looking for work or an imporved living standard. Increasing populations are straining cities' abilities to provide basic services - water, sanitation, shelter, education, health care. At the same time rural populations are dwindling, thus lessening the agricultrual base and in many cases decreasing the nation's food stores.

While Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) concentrates its work in the rural areas, the rural and urban populations are very closely linked in this country. Standard practice is for a family to send one or two members to the city to find a job and share the income with the rest of the family who stays behind; it is a method of diversifying incomes. Another common practice is for a family to move to the city during the working life of the provider (usually the husband), then return to the home village upon retirement.

As the Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) scheme's goal is home ownership, it plays an important role in slowing urbanization. Many families receive their first valuable asset in the form of their Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) house. The house increases the living standards of the family; it is property that will be inherited by the next generation. Overall health of the family improves, and time that was once spent repairing and re-thatching their traditional house is now freed up for other activities. A Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) house increases the family's interest in upgrading their community, and as such is often a catalyst for other projects such as building a school, putting in piped water, or establishing a clinic.

In addition, Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) is working in urban centres to address the growing need for shelter and sanitation in the rapidly growing cities. By maintaining an active revolving fund, more and more families are being provided with adequate homes in the growing cities of Malawi. Best of all, the poor are freed up from paying rent to an absentee landlord. Urban dwellers also gain access to land otherwise unobtainable to them. The government of Malawi has given blocks of land for the poor to be housed, and obtain their own land title.

Another outcome of Habitat for Humanity (Malawi)'s work is job creation. Each of the 12 project sites has created approximately 50 jobs within the community; the majority of these jobs go to local craftsmen and artisans. Many are also eligible for and receive a Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) house.

The environment is another concern of the organization. Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) has worked closely in partnership with the Departments of Agriculture and Forestry, WUSC, and Peace Corps to strengthen its response to environmental degredation and the needs of the communities in which it works. Aforestation efforts head the list, with 9 sponsored nurseries growing an estimated 150,000 seedlings in the 1995/96 rainy season. The Department of Forestry has donated its expertise in teaching people how to sprout seedlings and plant and care for trees. 1995 marks the first year Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) has embarked on a programme to collect and sprout indigenous trees, with the assistance of home owners. Agroforestry is being promoted with the technical and educational assistance of the Department of Agriculture.

Other conservation efforts include introducing and distributing ceramic stoves which burn charcoal more efficiently, thus reducing deforestation; providing a vegetable seed bank to promote kitchen gardens; soil reclamation and fertility improvement; erosion control through the use of napier grass; the promotion of permaculture techniques in gardening practices. The majority of these services, while aimed at Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) home owners, are available for community participation, thus improving the overall living environment of the greater community.


- 3,027 low-cost houses and latrines have been built to date in Malawi.
- 18,162 have directly benefited from the programme (estimate).
- An estimated 461 communities have participated in the scheme, encouraging self-help and community organization.


The community-based work of Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) is encouraging people to work together to address their housing problems. Instead of waiting for others to solve their problems, people are learning that success and change rests in them. The Government and other change agents are focusing on this very basic principle as the means which will move development forward in the country. Habitat's scope and expanse of work provides and example of success for other change agents and communities to examine and learn from.

The Government of Malawi has also included Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) in policy formation on various issues (land ownership affecting women; housing codes and laws) both directly and indirectly. The Government's support of Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) includes taking the organization's needs into consideration when debating new policies and laws.

Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) has assisted in introducing several technologies to the country. Low-cost cement roofing tiles have been a standard on Habitat houses since 1988, encouraging acceptance of the tiles as a valid construction material. Today in Malawi the cement roof tiles are ubiquitous and not only on Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) houses; a similar cement tile is used by Rural Housing Programme, and several small businesses have sprung up selling the tiles commercially. Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) also played a role in introducing the HydraForm M5 Blockmaking Machines. These diesel-powered machines produce a dense, compacted brick which can be dry-stacked, allowing for quick construction without the need for mortar. The technology is perfectly suited for such self-help projects as clinics and schools - and the government and several donor agencies are currently using the technology for these purposes. The Conservation Department has also promoted solar box cookers and fuel-efficient charcoal stoves.

Public awareness about low-cost housing needs has certainly increased due to Habitat for Humanity (Malawi)'s presence in the country. The organization is familiar to almost everyone and several sectors of society support the work in a variety of ways.


    Habitat for Humanity/National Office
    P.O. BOX 2436
    (265) 643-117


    Habitat for Humanity (Malawi) and the Republic of Malawi
    Habitat for Humanity (Malawi)
    P.O. BOX 2436


    Habitat for Humanity (Malawi)
    Maury, Matthew
    P.O. BOX 2436
    (265) 643-117

    Republic of Malawi, Ministry of Housing
    P.O. BOX 30548
    (265) 784-766.

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