Malawi has made strides in constructing, upgrading and maintaining some of its road infrastructure, but the ugly story remains on the rural transport infrastructure.
Fifty years after independence, with only but a few roads upgraded and constructed, some roads are still yet to undergone such developments.
Paradoxically, this happens while over 98 percent of World Bank lending in rural transport is for road building and maintenance and despite government interventions on rural transport that are almost exclusively directed towards infrastructure.
University of Malawi’s The Polytechnic senior lecturer in transport engineering Witness Kuotcha notes that confusion over responsibilities, scarcity of financial support and inadequate maintenance are some of the contributing factors to poor rural road infrastructure.
He says transport infrastructure has been predominantly left to the rural population to deal with the provision of transport where the availability of transport modes are minimal.
“There is little guidance, resources, legal framework, monitoring indicators and management provided to deal with transport services in rural areas which results in the slow and poor rural roads,” he said.
Kuotcha pointed out that the rural road network needs to be properly planned, using a systematic methodology by setting priorities according to the funds that are available.
“With a limited budget, the key priority is for the rural road network to maintain basic access, for the vastly populated villages, throughout the year which can be achieved through a spot improvement approach,” he said.
According to Kuotcha, the funding of maintenance for the rural road network needs to be clearly addressed, pointing out that it can be improved by developing road networks and providing space and storage facilities to encourage the development of regional markets.
“At the micro level, local governments need to give thought to how markets, schools, hospitals and other social services are connected to the road network and transport services in a way that both pedestrians and vehicles should be catered for,” he said.
“The funding of maintenance for the rural road network also needs to be properly addressed. If funds are collected via Road Funds on a fuel levy then inevitably there will be ‘cross-subsidisation’ from the heavily trafficked roads to help maintain the rural network.
“This should be carried out in conjunction with the regional planning process, in cooperation with other ministries whereby key facilities, such as schools, hospitals, electricity and water are provided at one location to promote growth,” he said.
Although noting that the easy solutions to improve transport services are rare, Kuotcha said powerful vested interests, including operators associations, can bring the change.
He said it is necessary to collect information on the nature of services that are currently provided, which can provide direct evidence of the case for intervention and where there is the most need.
Kuotcha further argued that appropriate solutions only depend upon traffic volumes and vehicle types as such quality and nature of infrastructure determines what type of traffic can pass.
“Performance can be improved through new investment or more intensive maintenance regarding when investment is greater, there will be more vehicle types that can be accommodated thereby lowering the variable unit of operating costs,” he said.