Where there is a road, commerce follows
A report of a contract signed between the Roads Contractor Company and a private contractor for the construction of a section of district road in the Okavango Region caught my attention as it can become the model for many similar public/private partnerships in future.
We are always looking for new and ingenious ways to create more unskilled employment, especially in the rural areas where the biggest number of unemployed people reside. And by using the thousands of available able-bodied men and women in any district, ongoing employment can be generated through various projects.
I do not envisage a sudden utopia where all the people in rural areas will find gainful employment in a myriad of new inventions but I certainly see a definite potential in starting with smaller, individual projects and then expanding the concept to other areas.
This is where the contract for building the road may become a pointer for future projects. The contract was awarded to a private construction company but one of the conditions is that certain parts of the construction process must be labour intensive. This is a rather broad condition and I believe it remains to be seen what components can be done manually and what needs to be done by industrial equipment.
When the idea of extending the railway line from Tsumeb to Oshikango by means of labour-intensive construction was first mooted, it was met with a fair amount of ridicule. But this was mostly because of political sentiment and not so much as a result of either logistics or manpower.
The Oshikango railway extension provided an invaluable learning opportunity. Looking back at the problems encountered almost continuously, the first fact one can isolate is that it probably was too ambitious for manual construction. Eventually the railway line, or most of it, had to be built using conventional heavy-duty equipment and engineering techniques. But it clearly demonstrated that large chunks of the work can actually be done by manual labour.
The proposed road in the Okavango is far more modest. It entails only a 21km section and there are many practical considerations in its favour. I accept that the earth moving will still be done in the conventional style. So would most of the cutting and backfilling. The volumes required are simply too large to be done by hand, but once the main levels have been set, a thousand smaller functions can be done manually.
One must also not forget that the aims of the contractor and the communities may not be aligned. But this asymmetrie should not diminish the manual labour requirements. Instead, I view the construction of this rather short road as an important testing ground to establish what is feasible and what not.
The contractor, after all, has tendered for this job to generate a certain profit. And I assume, because the project is a public works, there is a deadline. If there were no profit and no deadline, then perhaps we could have built the entire road by hand, but that would have taken ages. And it is also possible that if a project of this nature takes too long, then the communities who are supposed to benefit from the new road, will simply lose interest. So, from a practical and feasibility perspective, the contractor definitely must keep an eye on costs as well as time.
A similar situation already exists in many conservancies where community camp sites have been established. These camp sites varies in quality and amenities but it is noticeable that those that are better constructed and maintained, generally do well, and that tourists do not mind paying to use these camp sites.
This is still a rather vague concept, but imagine the long-term possibilities if we get rural communities to participate in the construction of all future district roads. Then the next step would be to operate these roads as toll roads. In other words, the community is employed during construction but afterwards, a community-based toll collector agency is instituted that applies the principle of “user pays”, and charges any motorist who wants to use that road a set fee.
This generates an income for the communities living along that road, but it can also contribute to the maintenance of the road, especially if the maintenance is mostly done manually.
Take for instance the areas in the Omaheke region in the former Hereroland East. Here one finds vast tracks of land only begging to be opened up to both traffic and trade. What exists there today as transport infrastructure, is at most tracks in the sand. And we are talking about huge areas that can be made accessible if the Herero communities living there can be enticed to participate in public/private partnerships for road construction, and later to operate said roads as toll roads.