MERCY MALIKWA engages Roads Authority (RA) chief executive officer TREVOR HIWA on his one year in office and other issues in this interview.
You recently clocked one year in office as head of RA. Can you tell us your experiences so far?
At the time of my joining RA, I found most of the road projects not doing well while some had completely stopped, causing the government to lose a lot of money monthly and also denying the people of Malawi economic use of good roads. Specifically, these road projects were Mzimba-Mzalangwe, the Nkhotakota to Msulira through the Nkhotakota Game Reserve, the Jenda to Edingeni, the Lumbadzi to Dowa, the Zomba to Chitakale, and the Thyolo to Makwasa to Bangula Road. My first task, therefore, was to take drastic actions to ensure that these projects either re-start or are terminated and re-advertised. A year on, the first two projects have been successfully closed, the Lumbadzi to Dowa project has re-started, and new contractors are being procured for the last two. We have also gone into phase two of expansion of the Blantyre-Zomba Road where we are dualising the Limbe end of the road up to Chiradzulu Turn-off and re-constructing the Zomba end up to Matawale Turn-off.
What are some of success stories and stumbling blocks you have encountered during your tenure?
We have had a slight increase in our development budget as well as an increase in fuel levy as a result of a change in the formula used to calculate it. If we have adequate finances, we can do a lot of work to improve the road network. For any economy to develop, it requires a large investment in the road sector. In Malawi, we require approximately K50 billion ($87.9 million) each year to carry out all the necessary maintenance activities on the road network and a further K50 billion for development projects. We only get 20 percent of this requirement because government has other competing needs such as food, medicines, education and others. This lack of adequate funds has been a major stumbling block.
Soon after your appointment in July 2014, you said your vision was to make RA the best in the management of the public road network. Can you comfortably say you are on course with your vision?
The initiative to make RA the best agency is on course. After carrying out a Swot analysis of the institution, I realised that we needed to carry out reforms internally to align ourselves to our core mandate contained in the RA Act and also to react to external threats that it now faces, specifically, the lack of adequate funding for roads. The RA’s management team has appeared before the Public Sector Reforms Commission to highlight the reforms which we are taking.
Road transport is the major mode of transport in Malawi despite most of the roads being unpaved. What long term plans does RA have to improve the situation?
It is indeed true that over 80 percent of the country’s population use road transport. The RA, therefore, ensures that the unpaved road network is maintained and that all parts of Malawi are accessible at all times. In recognition of this fact, RA allocates 65 percent of the recurrent budget to maintenance of earth roads while only 35 percent is committed to maintenance of paved roads. It is also important to note that road construction is expensive and we have to allow some roads to be “good” earth roads by regular grading. We are working on a mechanism with our stakeholders to ensure that regular grading takes place on the unpaved network.
The Opec Fund for International Development (Ofid) recently expressed worry by stagnation of road projects in Malawi despite additional funding and support from financiers. How is RA handling the issue to make sure donors don’t lose trust?
At the start of this interview, I highlighted the status of some projects when I took over as CEO. I admitted that some of these projects were not going well. I am glad to inform you that government supported our recommendation to terminate the contracts with the contractors on these projects. Currently, we are now in the final stages of procurement of other contractors to complete these works. Towards the end of this month, I will accompany the honourable Minister of Transport and Public Works [Francis Kasaila] to meet financiers of these projects, including Ofid, to brief them on progress made and discuss future funding to complete them.
Most road projects miss deadlines or double initial cost. How will RA ensure that deadlines are adhered to?
You need to look at the environment within which road projects take place for you to understand why sometimes we don’t finish with the same cost and on time. The kwacha is usually unstable which leads to escalation of costs. Periodic shortages of materials such as diesel, cement, forex and power outages also result in claims to the client making the project cost to increase. Other factors such as theft of construction materials and late payments to the contractor also tend to increase road construction costs. If I may use the issue of late payments; under any contractual arrangement, if one party does not receive a due payment on time, they charge interest on the delayed payment. This has the effect of increasing the contract price. However, the RA has taken this as one of its external threats and will soon introduce a risk plan for all its projects which will describe how all the risks associated with road construction will be mitigated against.