Quality & Longevity: What comes after bricks?

The other day, I watched this video by one historian named Vaclav Smil and it made me think about our construction practices in Malawi.

What is the most used material in Malawi, or indeed most parts of Africa? If it’s not brick – the same reddish-brown blocks that are made by this labour intensive, environmentally taxing process  involving burning the mud bricks with firewood in a mud kiln – then my guess is it either is firewood, or failing that mortar? I don’t know for sure – as I said, it’s a guess.

But with a growing African population, it makes sense as far as environmental conservation, ‘being green’ and living within the limits of your resources go, to look for alternatives which are eco-friendly or at least less taxing on the environment.

And this I believe is a question of our time in that what material(s) can take over, or have what it takes to take over from brick and mortal?

Advocates of green living point to all sorts of products that they hail as the next big thing (or at least better than brick and mortar), and it’s anyone’s guess which of these materials genuinely are as practical and affordable as bricks and mortar tend to be, especially for a poor country.

A few years back I encountered this brick made from composite and recycled materials including wooden chips and ‘cementius materials’ –  the MaqCrete

Then, I thought it still uses cement, so doesn’t divorce itself entirely from mortar. The question is does it use less cement than bricks and mortar – when you would still need cement to hold the blocks together and create a structure?

Although the owners says no energy is used – without clearly explaining how it is made, it leaves the question of how much energy in practical terms is expended in creating these blocks, and how such amount of energy compares with the amount of energy required to produce an ordinary brick? Similarly, how does the carbon footprint compare with that of mud bricks? And finally could such a block be made with relative easy in a country such as Malawi?

One killed and many injured in land resettlement fracas involving Mota Engil

Barely a week after the Times run a story about Mota Engil’s proposed 5-star hotel in Monkey Bay in Mangochi, the newspaper has reported that a man has died and several others were injured on Tuesday in a fracas over the issue:

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Nyasa Times put the dead toll at two people. Malawi News 24 reported that nine people had been injured.

The dispute (also mentioned on the Times Facebook page here) concerns the resettlement of villagers from land (said to be in the region of 100 hectares) to make way for a the construction of the hotel and golf course. The villagers claim the government didn’t consult them when selling the land to Mota Engil, and that their rights have been breached. Further they claim that the chief, Nankumba, is corruptly implicated in the scheme.

Land grabbing and forced eviction disputes are common across Africa (see the following links: Brazil’s big landowners have far too much power | Who Owns the Land? Cameroon’s Large-Scale Land-Grabs | Tanzania evicting 40,000 people from homeland to make room for Dubai royal family – Salon.com | Villagers, the big losers as land is ‘grabbed’ for development | Ethiopia’s land grab nightmare of the Suri People ~ Horn Affairs), and usually they follow a similar pattern that pits the power of the government in concert with rich corporations against defenceless and voiceless communities.

A government will decide to commercialize a large chunk of land for a project, be it agricultural (e.g. a sugarcane plantation) or industrial in nature. They approach the villagers, but because there is very little incentive to adequately compensate them, or not enough effort to explain how the sale of the land will benefit the villagers, and because of the corruption involved, the villagers will refuse to be resettled. Thus after varying degrees of negotiations or coercion, the military, police and sometimes armed militia are recruited to forcibly remove the people. Bulldozers move in, buildings are demolished, sometimes burnt, those who resist are arrested and sometimes imprisoned, and very little is done to help the people whose land has been forcibly taken. Often the communities never get to receive any material benefit from the sale of their land. Talk of taking advantage of defenceless people.

But there are ways of doing things constructively. For example, looking at the floods that have recently devastated the southern part of Malawi, it makes sense to resettle most of the people from the areas that are most at risk of flooding; indefinitely, or until effective permanent solutions are found to the flooding problem in these areas. It’s in their best interest.

If I were in charge of a project of resettlement, the following is a rough outline of what I would insist to be done. To me it’s common sense, at least if the dignity of the people affected is to be preserved:-

(1) The government and land developer involved would need to identify suitable land for the villagers to be resettled to, and begin building decent accommodation (homes and flats) for them to live in. In order to utilise space efficiently, they would need to consider energy-efficient flats or even communal living spaces for those who opt for it. Although it would entail some cost, if you are taking land away from people, they need to be remunerated properly. And just because they are poor doesn’t mean that they must be ill-treated or taken advantage of.

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And it doesn’t have to be overly expensive. Bamboo roofed houses like the one below, made of treated bamboo, with solar water heaters, solar lamps could go some way in providing accommodation for a few years, before something permanent is built :-

bamboo-house(2) The government would need to develop employment options for the community, by bringing in some kind of work. A factory to make soap, to assemble bicycles, to produce eco-friendly building materials, or an integrated commercial agricultural interest would do. This is important to provide the working population amongst the villagers with jobs, and a means to earn a living, so as to reduce poverty and desperation.

employment(3) Similarly, an administration office, a police depot, some schools, a technical college to provide skills training would need to be built. A library, a market, a hospital, some shops, possibly even a small shopping mall with a Cinema, and other important infrastructure would also be necessary, to provide amusement and entertainment, and to cater to the new settlement.

Students-Africa(4) The roads and transport links from the new settlement to the nearest city would need to be updated, to enable seamless travel, and encourage transfer of skills to the area.

road(5) Communication:- The government would need to be transparent and invite the villagers to relocate to the new town. Each family would be provided with a home depending on the size of the family and its earning potential. The ownership of the house would be 50% owned by the government and the other 50% by each household. Further, depending on their earnings, they would be asked to contribute a small amount each month towards buying the house, although alternative arrangements would be found for those who are old and can’t work, and those who are poor and have no income source. A relocation stipend to each household would also be provided to help them start their new life.

(6) A promise to preserve grave sites and religious or sacred sites at their old settlements would be necessary. Further, within reason, the villagers would need to be allowed access to the religious and sacred areas.

(7) Finally, Ownership. A trust fund would be created to be administered by representatives of the villagers ( and not the chiefs) whereby at least 20% of the hotel and golf-course’s pre-tax profits would be invested in to help developing the community, including creatint employment, to be invested in education and healthcare, and to maintain the housing estates or build additional settlements. This must be fixed contractually for the present hotel operator, and any future operators. Why? Because that’s the true meaning of Corporate Social Responsibility.

Only then would it be equitable and right to hand over the vacated land to the hotel developer. These people have to ask the question, how they would want the government to handle the matter had it been them who were being asked to move, and leave their land behind? Any developer who doesn’t agree to a deal that includes such considerations definitely does not have the people’s interests to heart.

They are building an airport city in Manchester

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Someone please remind me again why I live in this city

Most readers will probably not know that Manchester is quite an experimental city. The first free electric intercity metroshuttle buses in the UK began operating in Manchester. Manchester is set to have a 100MBps fibre optic network corridor interconnecting homes, businesses and universities along the famous Oxford Road. Manchester is home to one of a handful of Fablabs [small-scale workshop offering (personal) digital fabrication] across the world, complete with 3-D printers and such kit, an outfit that helps innovators seamlessly bring their ideas to life. Manchester is now home to Media City, the home of the BBC, a futuristic Media installation that is undeniably as state of the art as it gets. It was in Manchester that Graphene was first successfully isolated in 2004, at the University of Manchester, (and the scientists who discovered it won the Nobel Prize in Physics), and the invention (touted a ‘miracle material‘ and the next big thing) is set to transform technology in ways never imagined before. Beetham Tower, which is home to the Hilton hotel, restaurants and apartments was the tallest building in the UK outside London when it was completed in 2006, and is currently the tallest residential building in the UK. Manchester was the first city in the UK to get a modern light rail tram system when the Manchester Metrolink opened in 1992. Manchester will introduce a water taxi service between Manchester city centre and MediaCityUK at Salford Quays, the only one of its type in the UK. And now, they are building an Airport city, right next to the airport:

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If you want to do something new and fresh to your town and city, or if you want to push the boundaries, you should look to Manchester, because the chances are, if it’s not been done around here before, it’s either not worth doing, or is about to be done.

At this point I must state the obvious. Yes, you saw it coming, here it goes: Manchester is also home to two of football’s greatest clubs (and recently a National Football Museum), although we can probably argue about the ‘greatest’ bit forever, since curiously enough, despite my unashamed infatuation with this city, I happen to be an Arsenal fan :-).

Oh, and Manchester is the third-most visited city in the UK by foreign visitors, after London and Edinburgh.

But that’s not even half of what makes this city great…

As with most things, it didn’t just start yesterday. Anthony Burgess, Manchester born writer and composer (best known for  A Clockwork Orange), recalled in his autobiography published in 1986 how London “was an exercise in condescension. London was a day behind Manchester in the arts, in commercial cunning, in economic philosophy” For Burgess, Manchester was the real deal. And I think he had a point. This city, in the somewhat narrow frame of liberty in which its officials have been allowed to operate has been a pioneer for many years. During the industrial revolution, German writers and scientists came to Manchester, to observe first hand what these things called ‘factories’ were. With cotton mills springing up everywhere across Manchester, the city’s economy boomed, and created wealth for the industrialists. Manchester became the world first industrialised city, not least because of the textile factories and the Port of Manchester. During this time, it was dubbed ‘Cottonpolis’. Despite the city’s reliance on cotton, and the ‘pro-slavery spirit of America‘ which Sarah Redmond, a free African American Activist and Abolishionist talked about in 1859 when she visited to raise awareness about slavery, the pioneering spirit of Manchester soon had a welcome outcome: In 1862, Lancashire mill workers, at great personal sacrifice,took a principled stand by refusing to touch raw cotton picked by US slaves.

With the cotton industry on its knees, [President] Lincoln acknowledged the self-sacrifice of the ‘working men of Manchester’ in a letter he sent them in 1863. Lincoln’s words – later inscribed on the pedestal of his statue that can still be found in Lincoln Square, Manchester – praised the workers for their selfless act of “sublime Christian heroism, which has not been surpassed in any age or in any country.

P1050639The dynamism didn’t stop there, in 1821 the Manchester Guardian was founded.

It will zealously enforce the principles of civil and religious Liberty, it will warmly advocate the cause of Reform; it will endeavour to assist in the diffusion of just principles of Political Economy. – Prospectus outlining  the aims of the Guardian [Spartacus]

In 1878 the GPO (which became British Telecom, the telecommunications giant BT) provided its first telephones to a firm in Manchester. The world’s first stored program-computer was built in Manchester, at the Victoria University of Manchester by Frederic C. Williams, Tom Kilburn and Geoff Tootill, and ran its first program on 21 June 1948.

And it’s not just inventions and infrastructure that defined the city’s dynamism. Manchester has also been home to some great minds including the Chemist and Physicist John Dalton, Physicist J. J. Thompson, Engineer and Philanthropist Joseph Whitworth, and the Textile Merchant and philanthropist John Rylands.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began to write the Communist Manifesto at Chetham Library (the oldest public library in the English-speaking world) in Manchester. As Luke Bainbridge of the Guardian puts it:

This is the home of the industrial revolution and the city that split the atom, the birthplace of the computer and the Guardian, the suffragette movement, the free trade movement, the co-operative movement, the anti-corn law league, vegetarianism, the nation’s first free library, the world’s first intercity railway and the engine room of rock’n’roll that has produced the country’s best bands of the past 30 years, from Joy Division to Take That. 

Basically, without Manchester, and a lot of its creativity, innovation and history, it’s quite likely that much of the world as we know it wouldn’t be where it is today. Certainly not in the shape that we know. We’d probably still be in the dark ages. Or worse. 😉

And that thought alone, whether you agree with it or think it is far-fetched, is enough reason to learn from what this city has achieved, and continues to achieve.

Links

Another reason why Africans should own their own resources

man-40134_640Last week a well written article appeared on Al Jazeera arguing against the false and somewhat misleading picture of Corruption that is often put out by the western media. In it, it was suggested that over $900 billion a year is lost from developing to developed nations through tax evasion and illicit financial outflows. While this is a major problem for Africa, as was pointed out several years ago by Kofi Annan here, another reason which results in these outflows is that very few major industry (million dollar revenue generating) in Africa is in fact owned by Africans.

The combination of imperialist colonial legacies, poverty, a lack of capital, insufficient education, corruption, plain hypocrisy and other factors has resulted in a state of affairs whereby even capable Africans find it hard to buy into and run their continent’s biggest industries. While there are many Africans doing well in business throughout Africa, they are by far in the minority, and comparatively too few of them on the ground, than say the number of Canadians who own and control multi-million pound ventures within Canada, or say the number of Portuguese who own and control multi-million dollar companies in Portugal.

Thus, this picture inevitably creates an opportunity or gap for foreign corporations and investors to come in, and sweep away ownership of the whole lot – armed with huge amounts of capital. No surprise the profits end up everywhere else but in Africa…

In my view, far from the land grabs of Robert Mugabe (which others have tried to justify – see here and here), another reason in support of more Africans owning their continent’s industry is that doing so could mean that large amounts of money remain on the continent, to be used for education, health  -building hospitals and providing good wages for doctors, eliminating poverty, fighting corruption, policing and security, building infrustracture, improving the plight of women, investment in the youth, creating jobs, etc. It means essential capital is not being wired out to already rich countries. This in my view is a better strategy against poverty, than aid and handouts, whose monies are comparatively miniscule to the monies being siphoned from Africa.

According to the website of Britannia Mining Inc (a US company with operations in Canada and Malawi) here, the Nthale Iron Ore surface deposits which they found before 2009 are estimated from their geological survey to be at least 4.6 million tonnes in quantity. As often happens with these things, especially if we focus on the word ‘Surface’,in practice the deposits can be far larger than the estimate.

Last Friday, on the 7th of February 2014, before close of trading the price of Iron Ore on the international market was hovering around $125 per ton (see latest figures here). Whichever way this price goes (whether up or down) the next few years, 4.6 million tonnes at $125 per ton is still worth at least $575 million, a hefty sum by any measure. Even if we go with the 68% iron ore component indicated on their website, that’s still worth $391 million

Suppose Britannia Mining invested $100 million into Malawi, to cover processing the Ore, overheads including construction, logistics, wages, corporate governance activities, etc, (and it was proved that they had indeed invested such sums because sometimes businessmen overestimate the level of investment when the truth is much lower) I’d think the benefit to the Britannia would be significantly higher and disproportionately in their favour than in the favour of Malawians. Looking at previous examples of resource conflicts involving corporations in Africa, I seriously doubt that first they would invest such sums. Further, I doubt that Malawians or the Malawian government would benefit equally or at least proportionally from the resource. Which begs the question, who actually owns the resource?

As many others have opined elsewhere (see this for example), the unrestrained greed and unguarded capitalism of western businesses in Africa is causing a lot of damage and harm to Africa, and Africans. And that’s even before we get to what China is doing…

Even if the market price of Iron Ore dropped to say below $100, (say it dropped to $65, which is highly unlikely – the last time it hit $100/ ton was back in Aug 2012, and that was only for a very brief period of time), there would still be at least $300 million worth of deposits to be mined.

Don’t you think if the company that was exploiting the deposit was owned or part-owned (say 50%) by the Malawian government, or a group of Malawians, that the majority of the benefit of the resource would remain in the country, as opposed to being wired out of Malawi?

Post Paladin, and the tax outrage they caused when it was revealed that the Malawian tax authorities were missing out on tax revenues worth $200 million, how much tax have Britannia paid to the Malawian government so far, and how much have they made out of Nthale? The reason that question is crucial is because no level-headed Malawian is keen to see Malawi descend into a chaotic easy target where rich corporations (which are already wealthy and well resourced) come into the country and make billions, while the local population remains poor.

And if governments across the world do not speak against unrestrained greed, who will, seeing most governments in Africa are headed by people who have neither the will nor inclination to do so…?

Kenyatta + Branson
image from https://www.facebook.com/myuhurukenyatta

In my view, Africa needs trade partners who will help rebuild the continent, and not those looking for a quick buck, irrespective of the ethics of the means of acquiring that buck.

If you are looking to make money quick, stay away from Malawi. We don’t want get rich quick capitalists or investors. What Malawi needs are Responsible Capitalists, as opposed to a Liberal and unguarded Capitalists – a badge which brings to mind Halliburton’s Iraq heist (or even ILLOVO’s tax avoidance fiasco –  ILLOVO [which is British owned via Associated Foods Limited] is  company that last year posted a 43% rise in profits per share), an incident which it is fair to say has probably been responsible for not only much suffering, but also global unrest.

Depending on who you ask, its undeniable that corporate wrongdoing is currently happening, and the continent of Africa is being systematically ripped off. Yet there has to come a time when the tide turns, and the wrongdoing is forced to stop (sadly it’s not going to stop voluntarily). In the words of the African Development Bank president Donald Kaberuka here:

“The reality is, Africa is being ripped off big time …Africa wants to grow itself out of poverty through trade and investment – part of doing so is to ensure there is transparency and sound governance in the natural resources sector”

In my view this means rectification, and possibly includes learning lessons from those whose policies do not exacerbate the already bad situation; lessons from the likes of Brazil instead of blindly accepting unfair and discriminatory terms from organisations such as the IMF – whose policies towards the poor countries couldn’t be said to be favourable for local ownership of industry.

Maybe Malawi’s mining sector has more to learn from the likes of Vale and Debswana. Debswana is 50% owned by the Botswana government and 50% owned by De Beers. Vale is the world’s biggest producer of Iron Ore, and their profits recently doubled (Interestingly, in the same article Vale says the price of Iron Ore would hit $130 per ton, which it did, confirming the plausibility of my above little theory). They’ve seen an increase in production, which last year hit 73.4 million tonnes of Iron Ore. They are also a major tax contributor to the Brazilian government, with recent tax payments of $9.6 billion, far greater than anything any corporation have had to pay to an African government.

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