There’s no place like home: Botswana’s housing problem

In November 2014 thousands of Batswana came to apply for plots at Oodi Sub Land Board, the local authority responsible for managing land-related issues in a small part of the country spanning several villages, despite the fact that there were only 400 available plots in all the villages under the board’s mandate. The result was that the fence of the land board was torn down during a stampede in which three people sustained serious injuries. Once the dust settled it became painfully clear that the average Motswana simply can’t afford to buy a piece of land in their own country, let alone a piece of land containing a house, and that the situation led many to act in desperation.

There is a serious problem when a country with a population less than that of the comparatively tiny Sierra Leone and a land area greater than that of Kenya can’t ensure that all its citizens have access to housing.

Since gaining independence in 1966, Botswana has had a land allocation system that entitles every Motswana citizen to at least one plot of land. But cases of people applying to Land Boards and then waiting literally decades before being allocated a plot are common. And the situation has only deteriorated in recent years as the demand for accommodation in Botswana’s capital city Gaborone, where thousands of Batswana flock every year in pursuit of education and work opportunities, has driven the price of housing through the roof.

Out of Botswana’s population of only 2 million, some 27% of the adult population did not earn any income in 2009, according to a survey by think tank Finscope. Another third earned less than P500 ($74 at the time and roughly $50 at current exchange rates) a month. The same survey found that 43% of households lived in inadequate accommodation – either overcrowded in formal dwellings, or living in informal dwellings.

Botswana is also one of many African countries in which the cost of housing exceeds the buying power of local residents, according to a 2013 report from the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa. While the price of the cheapest newly built house by a formal developer sat at just under $60,000 the country’s GNI per capita was slightly above $8,000.

Botswana’s limited property consumer base is also compounded by the fact that the majority of income earners are in the public service, which has seen salary stagnation for the past five years (although there was a 6% rise awarded to public servants in April 2015).

Overvalued property

Meanwhile, the rapid growth of Botswana’s property market in recent years has raised eyebrows amongst many industry observers. According to the IPD Annual Property Consultative Index, the Botswana property market had a return of 20.9% in 2011 which actually made Botswana’s tiny property market more lucrative than that of many developed markets such as the UK and the USA and far ahead of South Africa. In that same year, the South African property market was returning 10% returns while the USA and the UK stood at 15% and 8% respectively. In 2013, the total return on property in Botswana was at 21.4%.

“The question that was never answered effectively was: how could it be that our property market could be growing and making such astronomical returns during a recession?” opined built environment specialist publication Boidus Focus Newspaper’s Managing Editor and RIBA Chartered Architect Killion Mokwete in an editorial he wrote for the publication in March.

Mokwete went on to say: “The current conundrum that the country faces has all the hallmarks of the 2008 US housing bubble which played a major role in the global economic crisis. This housing bubble, defined as ‘the rapid increases in the valuations of real property until unsustainable levels are reached in relation to incomes and other indicators of affordability’ rings true to the state of our property market.”

A typical low-cost, two-bedroom house in Gaborone. Taelo Maphorisa.

Government response falls short

Government has instituted various initiatives to address the country’s housing problem. The oldest of them is the parastatal Botswana Housing Corporation (BHC), which, while it was originally established to provide housing to Batswana of all income groups, now produces houses which are out of the reach of most Batswana, much to the dismay of the general population.

At a conference last year, BHC Marketing and Research Manager Mookodi Seisa explained the parastatal’s pricing policy thus: “There is a mistaken belief that BHC is funded by the government. This is not the case. That is why when we set the prices of properties, we need to consider all the expenses that we would have incurred,” he said. Seisa further said the corporation is faced with challenges that include sourcing and servicing of land since BHC is treated like any other entity when it applies for land allocation.

Another government initiative is the Self Help Housing Agency (SHHA) which is specifically targeted at low income groups. Those earning an annual income of between P4,400 and P36,400 ($440 and $3,640) are eligible to apply for low to middle income plots available through the SHHA scheme. Government also has plans to create an affordable housing scheme that can benefit citizens earning above the threshold for the Self Help Housing Agency but below the threshold to qualify for mortgages through financial institutions.

When I spoke to Deputy Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Lands and Housing Maotoanong Sebina last year he told me that this new scheme, which has already been approved for public servants, will see those earning at the D4 scale (which represents an annual income of between roughly $15, 430 and $17, 036) and below being eligible for assistance in acquiring housing.

Through the Ministry of Lands and Housing, government has also begun implementation of the Land Administration, Processes, Capacity and Systems (LAPCAS) project. This exercise is aimed at, amongst other things, developing a new unique plot numbering system that will facilitate a land information system; initiating the national land registration exercise to clearly capture information on who owns what piece of land and where; and improving record management at land authorities.

However, this exercise has received sharp criticism from opposition parties. Last year, Dumelang Saleshando, Leader of the Opposition in Parliament at the time, said the government’s LAPCAS project is inadequate as it is only recording ownership of land, without delving into the factors that have led to low supply and demand. He said waiting for the LAPCAS process would essentially be postponing dealing with the problem as after the process all that would be known is who owns what, but not the factors explaining the discrepancies in ownership patterns.

As an alternative, Saleshando asked the House to decide on a comprehensive land audit to establish the factors that have led to demand outstripping supply in most urban centres. Saleshando said the envisioned audit would also establish land ownership patterns in the country but it was rejected by the ruling-party led Parliament.

More innovative solutions will need to be developed by both the public and private sector if Botswana’s housing problem is ever to be overcome. Until then, many Batswana will remain without homes of their own, either renting or squatting, and quite literally living on borrowed time.


Kibo Ngowi is a journalist based in Gaborone, Botswana who has contributed articles to several nationally-distributed newspapers and the national airline’s in-flight magazine as a freelance writer. He is currently the Deputy Editor of Boidus Focus Newspaper, a monthly publication dedicated to covering issues around Botswana’s building and construction industry. You can reach him via [email protected]

Main photo: In the face of increasingly unaffordable housing, many entrepreneurs are building multi-residential developments such as this one for city residents who can’t afford to buy or rent a house. Taelo Maphorisa

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