The magic of Malawi – leading the way in Africa with census geospatial information

This small landlocked country in south-east Africa is one of the true pearls of the African continent. Lake Malawi is situated on the eastern border of the country and is one of the Great Lakes of Africa. Its significance is shown in that it is the fourth largest freshwater lake by volume in the world. The lake has a multitude of fish species that has for centuries formed part of the livelihood of the people living on its shores and in the interior of Malawi.

Lake Malawi is one of the most serene places on earth and a favourite of many tourists visiting Malawi and the continent. A visit to any part of Malawi will exposes visitors to one of the friendliest people on the African continent. Whether engaging with government officials, businesspeople, resort staff, academics or the general population, you are always made to feel welcome.

Using data on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita of the World Bank, Malawi is rated as the second poorest country in the world in 2019. Indicating that the economy of the country is limited and that there is little revenue to bring about development of Malawi and ensuring its people have a sustainable livelihood.

It is largely a rural country with a few urban centres like Lilongwe, Blantyre, Mzuzu and Zomba. It has an agrarian economy with the main agricultural outputs being tobacco, sugarcane, cotton, tea, corn, potatoes, sorghum, cattle and goats. Most of the agriculture is subsistence with few large commercial endeavours located in the more suitable agriculture areas of the country.

A factor that has been identified as a matter of concern is the population growth rate. With limited land resources available and a growing population, although mortality rates remain high from HIV/AIDS and other diseases, the pressure on the land and the economy continues to increase.

Malawi a leader in census geospatial data

Whether it is Malawi or any other country in Africa, access to detailed and current geospatial data on the population and its socio-economic characteristics is critical. Over several decades Malawi has shown that it is still be a leader on the continent in the provision of geospatial data for its censuses, even when it is one of the least developed countries in Africa. Malawi’s latest census was done in 2018 and already the country through its National Statistical Office has made its census data available at the most detailed spatial level.

Malawi has shown that when it comes to providing information, more specifically census data, it is one of the leaders in Africa. It is one of the countries that has systematically conducted its decentennial censuses in 1987, 1998, 2008 and more recently in 2018. In 2002, with the support of the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a socio-economic atlas was published containing data from mainly the 1998 census but also household surveys and previous censuses. The production of an atlas is an indicator of the sophistication of a country’s ability to provide geospatial data from their censuses. Atlases have all become digital and it is now the time for Malawi to provide all their census data on a web mapping portal.

The Atlas of Social Statistics contains sections on population characteristics, poverty, health and fertility, education and literacy, cultural and economic activities and living conditions. Within each of the sections a number of different mapping techniques (eg dot density) and indicators (eg sex and dependency ratio) are used. This again reflects how sophisticated the atlas was that was developed by IFPRI and the Malawi National Statistical Office. Many African countries to date have not developed an atlas nor do they provide this number of variables at such a detailed spatial level.

This information is invaluable in defining the socio-economic characteristics of the population at the local level and in defining levels of poverty. Information on individual and household income is not collected in censuses conducted in most African countries. It is unclear as to why this is the case, but income data is required to provide information for Foreign Direct Investment by private sector organizations. With this information it would be much easier to calculate the levels of poverty at a local level. Instead, the census data is used as the foundation for the conducting of small area estimation and the imputing of household survey data to the local level.

African countries need to take Malawi’s lead on census geospatial data

It cannot be emphasized more, why census data at the smallest spatial area is so valuable. In its most simple use, maps can be produced of different variables linked to the census enumeration area boundaries. This information can be used to assist in the planning and development of communities. It can also be used in the private sector to target particular markets.

By the integration of census data into a geospatial format allows the creation of new indices. For example, the ratio of total population to the geographic area of a census enumeration area allows the creation of population density. A wide variety of other indices can be generated from census data when incorporated into geospatial format (eg proximity indicators).

Another important use of the census data at the smallest spatial area, is its use as a sampling frame for the conducting of nationally representative household surveys. Census attributes associated with the spatial boundaries can be used as the target population in the selection of enumeration areas for a household survey. Other geospatial layers may be overlaid on the census data to provide different levels of stratification for the design of the sample. The target market variables provides a measure of size for the drawing of a sample with probability proportional to size (pps) sample to ensure a representative sample of a country. Using the census data as the sampling frame allows fieldwork maps to be produced and ensures accurate navigation to areas by fieldworkers where respondents need to be interviewed.

When the census data is used as the sample frame it allows an area-based sample to be drawn. An area-based sample is critically important if one wants to do small area estimation and impute variables from sampled areas in a household survey to all enumeration areas. Not only is census geospatial data critical to do small area estimation, but it is also needed to plan the provision of government services, such as schools and health facilities.

With the census data at an enumeration area level most variables from household surveys can be easily imputed to provide critical data for the future development of a country. With limited resources, countries like Malawi, can use their detailed census data within accessibility models to optimize the number and provision of government services. Malawi is ideally positioned to use its geospatial census data to bring about its socio-economic development and the improve the quality of life of its people.

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