The housing census, run with the population census in April this year, has shown that Zimbabweans do put a lot of effort and a significant part of their income into building and upgrading their homes, although with that 19,3 percent of households still lodging, and even worse the 1,1 percent living in shacks, shows where we need to make more progress.
But on the good news side we now have 84 percent of households living in modern houses and flats, and considering that the population census run at the same time found that 60,1 percent of households live in rural areas, this means a majority of farming families have invested their rising income into improving their living conditions.
In fact assuming all urban households have to, by planning rules, live in housing that at least attempts to comply with the modern building by-laws, or at least by-laws as they have existed over the past 125 or so years, we find there are more modern houses in rural areas than urban areas and that just over 60 percent of rural families now do the same.
Everyone travelling through the communal lands and the A1 resettlement areas will have seen this with ever more homesteads acquiring permanent brick rooms with permanent roofing and organically growing as money comes in from the tobacco harvest and the grain harvests, along with more commercial cattle sales.
To a large degree this means that the Government policies on rural development have to continue and reinforce what the Second Republic has already been doing, ensuring that rural families can make more money from farming and other rural pursuits. Upgrading rural housing is something that happens as farmers earn more money and so long as Government policies ensure that happens, then the upgrade in basic housing can be left to the farmers.
Land reform, followed by the Second Republic’s continuous thrust to ensure that small-scale farmers benefit from inputs, cattle breeding and other programmes so the new farming wealth is distributed right down the line, was also important here rather than concentrating rural wealth in a tiny elite and letting the overwhelming majority rot.
Of course there are the additions that middle income people need and where special Government programmes are needed, and this is part of that thrust as we are push hard to become an upper middle-income economy and society by 2030.
Water and electricity are obviously crucial factors, and here the housing census shows that in rural areas there must be a lot of homesteads that do not have a power supply. While there are urban families using firewood for cooking that discovery that 60 percent of total households use firewood is something that we need to consider.
It is not as bad as it sounds. A lot of rural homesteads have planted woodlots next to their homes, and some have bought or made the more modern stoves that burn wood far more efficiently. These households are in fact using renewable energy efficiently and there are plenty of farming families in rich countries that cook on wood, albeit in quality stoves with wood from renewable sources.
One modern technology has already made a difference, solar power. The census found 91 percent of households have reasonable lighting, either grid electricity or solar in almost all cases. Those small solar lamps charged by a modest solar panel are not that expensive and have become ubiquitous. They also charge the phones that almost all families now have. Of course there are those seriously prosperous households that have large solar panels on their roofs, which are not suitable for a cooking power supply but can do almost everything else.
Grid power, either from the national grid or from smaller local grids, is expanding through the rural electrification programme, funded through a small tax on Zesa tariffs, and now being taken a lot more seriously in the Second Republic, and as the Government itself has made clear will be pushed harder. This is important.
Water supplies for rural areas are now a critical Government programme. The policy is to provide a borehole in every village, as a start, and that is a huge programme. Already drilling rigs have been bought and deployed and more rigs are on order or being delivered. The programme demands that the pumps are solar powered, which is not a problem with water so long as a tank or small reservoir is included to store the water when the sun shines so it is available later in the dark.
Wells are not uncommon, although many families live on land where a much deeper borehole is required, and upgrades to homesteads usually include the necessary work to protect that well. Most do not have pumps though, and that is something that those fascinated by appropriate technology need to work on, with affordable hand pumps that can be upgraded to solar power as money flows in.
Urban housing needs more Government intervention since the need to push densities requires a lot more blocks of flats rather than spreading towns and cities merging as we see in Greater Harare plus the piped water and sewerage systems. While prosperous farmers with a water supply can use the same sort of septic tanks that the wealthier families on their large city plots use, high density urban housing needs sewers and sewage treatment works.
This requires more planning and efficient financing models, since a block of flats connected to the sewers and the urban water supply has to be built all at once, and not by a village builder or local craft person adding one room a year, as we see with flourishing farm houses and even in older urban areas where detached houses are the norm.
So the census provides a lot of critical information. The backlog is not as bad as we thought although it is very large. Around 20 percent of the 3,8 million households are lodgers, implying a need for 640 000 new houses and flats, and once you add in those who live with relatives, some because they wish to and some because they have to, we possibly need 750 000 new dwellings.
The small market for formally rented housing, 3,1 percent of households, and those in institutional housing, are not critical. In fact a larger investment in rental housing would be useful and the Government is moving hard towards expanding its own housing stock so a far higher percentage of State workers live in a Government flat or house. So long as pension schemes and inheritance laws are worked on properly, those in institutional housing will be able to house themselves when they retire.
But what we have found is that there is no magic single bullet. We need to continually push rural prosperity in one of the drives; we need to press ahead with grid expansion and borehole drilling; we need to plan urban areas better and accelerate the urban housing programme; we need to upgrade urban water supplies and sewerage. All this is in progress but we now have the real numbers, that in the final census report will be detailed down to ward level.
And Government investment needs to be supported by private investment, both in financing arrangements and in building up our housing stock.
As with everything else, it needs everyone to make the sort of difference we need.