The Politics of Water 3: Area Mechanics in Malawi

by Naomi Oates, re-posted from University of Sheffield

Competing narratives surround the role of ‘area mechanics’ in Malawi

In November 2017 I started my ‘politics of water’ blog as an outlet to share experiences and findings from my research in rural Malawi on water governance and service sustainability.

The first instalment describes my initial impressions of Balaka District while the second explores the relationship between extension workers and rural communities.

This might have left you wondering – what about everyone else?


Area Mechanics receive hands-on training in water point repairs (Author’s own)

Water services in Malawi are decentralised, at least in theory.  This means two things. Firstly, district councils, together with district water offices, are mandated to develop and monitor water infrastructure in rural areas.

Secondly, communities are expected to maintain and repair their water points with minimal external assistance. For more serious problems, local ‘area mechanics’ are their first port of call, followed by the district water office.

In reality, district water offices are severely under resourced, there are currently few area mechanics, and the effectiveness of community-based management varies considerably. However, where they are present, area mechanics are thought to play an important role in keeping water points functioning.

Area Mechanics: volunteers or entrepreneurs?

So what is an area mechanic? This sounds like a simple question, but the answers are complex and contradictory.

The area mechanics Thoko interviewed in Balaka for her MSc research tended to consider themselves, foremost, as volunteers working for the greater good of the community. After all, they were selected from the local community and have strong social ties with the people they serve. An area mechanic may be a relative, a neighbour or a fellow churchgoer, even the village headman himself. Trustworthiness was emphasised by communities as an important criteria.


This training manual describes area mechanics as ‘artisans in advanced hand pump repair operating on a payment basis’ (GoM 2015)

The depiction of area mechanics as volunteers has been echoed in my own conversations with extension staff and NGO workers, but in combination with another term – entrepreneur. According to national policy, area mechanics are meant to operate as independent businesspersons. They are given training and a few basic tools, after which they are expected to make a small profit to sustain their operations. They are also encouraged to sign written contracts with communities to clarify payment for services.

This model is clearly aimed at economic viability and is meant to incentivise area mechanics by providing them with an income. Arguably, the model has failed to gain traction locally because it ignores the social context in which area mechanics operate.

A third view is that area mechanics are integral to formal water governance arrangements – in other words part of, or plugging a gap in, the government’s extension system. This may not be stated explicitly, but is implicit in the use of government issued ID cards.

To give another example, area mechanics are sometimes (but not always) introduced to communities by a government representative in order to establish their legitimacy. Several of the area mechanics Thoko spoke to wanted their role to be formalised to enable them to negotiate fees with communities, or conversely in the hope of receiving material and financial support from government.

The ambiguity of water mechanics

Despite appearances, none of these narratives is mutually exclusive, and they may be employed at different times depending on the context. As one extension worker explained to me:

“Area mechanics are entrepreneurs by design and should make communities aware of that. They are supposed to have a signed agreement. The area mechanic needs to be paid, a little.”


Area mechanics often prefer working as a team – two heads being better than one! (Author’s own)

He then went on to clarify:

“It is not payment as such but a token of appreciation. It is up to them if they want to work for free. However they shouldn’t deny assistance to a Water Point Committee just because they don’t have money.”

The ambiguity surrounding area mechanics can be confusing and could be viewed as a failure of policy (or its implementation). But, in my view, that conclusion would be overly simplistic and misses the point.

The co-existence of these different narratives, or interpretations of policy, leaves room for negotiation and pragmatism. These are arguably important ingredients for success, especially when adapting policies to local realities. In short, the role of area mechanics in Malawi’s water governance system is not yet set in stone.

In addition to my PhD fieldwork this blog draws on previous work by the authors under the UPGro Hidden Crisis project. Check out our report on the political economy of rural water supplies in Malawi.

Championing environmental sustainability in Malawi schools: inspiring the next generation

By Naomi Oates, Fiskani Kondowe, and Evance Mwathunga (UPGro Hidden Crisis)

 ‘This activity has been inspiring for us and we will work very hard to reach university and be able to carry out experiments using big machines which we have seen from your presentations’ – a learner at Pirimiti Secondary School, in Zomba district

In March 2018 a team of motivated scientists from ‘Malawi Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics’ (MAGSTEM) at Chancellor College, a scholar from the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures (University of Sheffield) facilitated by an UPGro researcher teamed up to reach out to disadvantaged schools in Zomba, Malawi. The talks were inspired by our realisation from UPGro research survey that learners in rural schools in Malawi, in spite of their curiosity to know what we were doing in our groundwater research, they lacked knowledge regarding environmental sustainability including water. The aim of the workshops, therefore, was to encourage students to care for their local environment and to inspire them to pursue careers in the sciences.

Photos 2 & 3: The water purification experiment

During the workshops students from Naisi and Pirimiti Secondary Schools brainstormed the threats to water resources in their area, highlighting deforestation, pollution and climate change as big challenges. Groups of girls and boys then tried a simple water purification experiment using a plastic bottle, cloth filter and (the magic ingredient) activated charcoal. They were excited to find that it really works! After a few minutes, clean water started to appear at the bottom of the bottle. Not only does the cloth filter out big particles but the charcoal acts as a coagulant for the smaller particles, making they stick together in lumps. This process is very similar to the methods used in real-life water treatment works – places that these students could work in future as water chemists or engineers.

The MAGSTEM volunteers concluded with an inspiring talk about career options and promised to return with more information. As a team, we were very impressed by the bright sparks we met at Naisi and Pirimiti Secondary Schools and encouraged them to work hard for their exams. Several students said they were keen to study at university in future, in subjects like medicine, chemistry or maths. We hope to welcome them soon!

In his concluding remarks, the Naisi head teacher wrapped it all:

‘We appreciate your effort of showing the students that science is fun and that students can be innovative and resourceful by using locally available resources to better their lives. Your talk has cleared the myths and stereotypes among our rural learners especially girls that science is tough ’.

Photo credits: Naomi Oates, Fiskani Kondowe, and Evance Mwathunga

Debating real-world community-based management of water points

Community-management has been the mainstay of rural water supplies in Africa, and in many other parts of the world, but is it the only way? Are there better alternatives? In this lively webinar, researchers from the UPGro Hidden Crisis project discuss their research with RWSN members:

Do you have anything to add? Leave your comments below.

New: “Can ‘functionality’ save the community management model of rural water supply?

We are pleased to share a new UPGro paper from Luke Whaley and Prof. Frances Cleaver (Sheffield University) of the Hidden Crisis study – Can ‘functionality’ save the community management model of rural water supply?”

It is primarily a literature review paper so many elements will be familiar to rural water practitioners, however, Whaley and Cleaver are coming from a social science perspective so they highlight that previous analysis has focused on community management of water points as a “techno-managerial exercise” that largely ignores from broader social, political and cultural rules and relations around power – which groups and individuals have power over others and how is that used (or not used).

So what? The author’s suggest that current dialogue on water point functionality is not enough to save Community Based Management, because there is often a wider problem in with the under-resourcing of local government (and governance) and that more work is needed to help develop context-specific management, “rather than attempting to tweak the current blueprint of development the next ‘big thing’”

The full open access paper can be read and downloaded from Science Direct

Please take some time to read this and feel free to discuss – and argue! – about it in the RWSN Sustainable Services community