Re-building township micro-economies

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Vince Musewe

By Vince Musewe
THERE is no doubt that the majority of urban residents stay in so-called “townships” which traditionally are high-density suburbs. Harare alone has about 15 “townships” each at different levels of development, but the common factor is these have become micro-economies which require further attention and development.

Before 1980, townships accommodated professionals and factory workers close to industries while the majority resided in the rural areas. All social services were reasonably available. The migration of people from rural  to urban areas which occurred post the 2000 land reform programme era, in fact, caused a population density explosion which has not only led to overpopulation but also put serious pressure on basic urban infrastructure and access to basic social services.

The lack of formal jobs in urban industrial areas has made the urban poverty even worse, as millions must eke out a living in a highly competitive unregulated and unstable informal sector. This has come with its evils of drug addiction, teen prostitution and a general decline in societal values.

Due to the above factors, we have seen the burgeoning of informal business in townships as people try to minimise costs such as travel and rentals and serve their immediate market — the township economy. Over the past 20 years, townships have somewhat dilapidated due to lack of investments in public infrastructure, be it social or business, and it is imperative that we modernise and rehabilitate our townships.  Re-building the township economy must, therefore, be part and parcel of creating inclusive economic growth. In doing so, it is critical to look at all sectors of life from education, health, food security, sport, arts, culture among others.

In South Africa, the Gauteng province recently adopted its Township Development Bill and we can indeed learn from that. The Bill seeks to provide for the promotion and development of the township economy and to create a conducive environment and to provide for the licensing of township-based enterprises. The legislation covers the following areas among others:

The development of suitable infrastructure, including worksites, social amenities, business information centres, model centres of excellence, common usage facilities and other facilities, necessary for development of sector township-based enterprises. The Bill also seeks to assist sector township-based enterprises with the provision of buildings or premises on which township enterprises may undertake designated business activities.

In order to develop the township economy, the development of markets and provision of marketing services within townships includes; the establishment of markets or identify existing markets for products generated by sector township-based enterprises; provision of linkages between sector township-based enterprises and potential markets; the holding of township-based trade fairs and shows in order to promote products generated by sector township-based enterprises. 

The initiatives encourage innovation and transfer of technology in order to increase competitiveness of township-based enterprise products and services; support the registration and protection of intellectual property rights for sector township-based enterprises; the provision of incentives to encourage invention and innovation by sector township-based enterprises; the establishment of technology parks for graduating sector township-based enterprises; the identification, collection, development, modification, packaging and dissemination of technology and products to sector township-based enterprises; access modern and appropriate technologies for use by sector township-based enterprises.

Improving credit access and other financial services by sector township-based enterprises; develop programmes to enable sector township-based enterprises to comply with legislation, including in particular, environmental legislation; and the mobilisation of funds and resources for the development of appropriate technology in relevant research institutions and enterprises that develop technology for small enterprises.

In my opinion, this is exactly what we need to do after years of neglect of townships where the majority of urban residents reside. In order for such an initiative to be successful, strong and effective local governance is critical but such governance must be in collaboration with citizens and must be depoliticised in order to ensure inclusivity. Access to social services such as health and education must also be improved.

In my view, each township must have its own socio-economic developmental blueprint over at least five years. Central to the developmental blueprint must be human capital development and capacity building within township micro- economies. The key socio-economic objectives must include:

  • Social and economic empowerment and development within townships. This involves community development projects that involve and benefit residents especially local unemployed youths and mothers.
  • Access to basic services
  • The rehabilitation and maintenance of the infrastructure and public amenities in the township including access to a clean environment, safety and security for all residents
  • The creation of opportunities to educate, train and empower residents to create new skills and for communities to take leadership and responsibility for developing themselves, their families and their neighbourhood
  • The promotion of local sport, arts and culture
  • Broad access to affordable internet

The problem we have is that there is too much focus on national development without drilling it down to community level where development really matters. Because of that we may have a myriad of national development projects which have very little social impact on the lives of ordinary citizens and that is the real problem we are facing now.

Private public partnerships are the way to go in order to attract the necessary capital and this will require clean and ethical local governance.

In order to succeed, it will be necessary for thorough research and needs analysis in every township to be done so that accurate data is regularly collected and this will determine what needs to be done. Whether we like it or not, townships are the bedrock of our communities and their development at micro level can only lead to macro gains. In my opinion, they are sleeping economic giants whose development can certainly improve the quality of life of the majority of urban dwellers.

  • Vince Musewe is an economist and you can contact him on vtmusewe@gmail.com