Malawi Secondary Cities Plan: A Spatial Guide for Development

Projective render highligting the development of Secondary Cities 2063

In May 2021, the cabinet of the government of Malawi approved and released the Malawi Secondary Cities Plan (MSCP) developed by ORG together with the National Planning Commission (NPC). The MSCP is the result of a three-year-long engagement with multiple stakeholders from government officials to private organizations and institutions and comes to support the ‘Malawi 2063’ Vision which includes long and medium-term development plans for the country. The document has a number of goals: 1) to identify catalytic locations for strategic investments through a data-driven analytical process guided by national agendas, 2) to establish a coordinated and comprehensive development promotion through strategic clustering of assets and projects, 3) to promote land-use efficiency in locations where land is on high demand, and 4) to diversify economic growth in rural areas through cross-sectoral programs. We hope that this work will act as a public document for consolidated stakeholder engagement.


Malawi has a population of over 18 million, with an average annual growth rate of 2.9% (NSO 2018). The population is forecasted to grow to over 30 million by 2035, and 45 million by 2050, nearly tripling the estimated 16 million from 2010 in a period of 40 years. Considering the available arable land at around 40% of its footprint, it is estimated that Malawi will face a critical point in the near future where family-owned farms (smallholders) will not be able to provide for themselves. These facts and projections will only raise the level of current food insecurity Malawi faces, due to rain-reliant agricultural practices and growing environmental risks of floods and droughts.


The two pressing trends related to land use planning are 1) decrease of agricultural land sizes of rapidly growing populations of rural farmers, 2) increase of settlement land around existing urban centers, especially in areas where land is most suitable for agriculture. Considering these two pressures, Malawi requires a national shift towards new patterns of settlements, both urban and rural, that must be driven by land-use efficiency, infrastructural connectivity, environmental sensitivity, and diverse economic productivity. For this transition to succeed, urban and rural areas require land and population management plans to public policies and investments in transportation, water, and energy infrastructure as well as private investments in commercial agri-business and industry. These policies and investments would catalyze a process of industrialization and modernization in strategic locations. In parallel, rural communities would require immense innovation to design replicable models of cooperative schemes connecting local villages and farmers to regional and global economies.

The case for secondary cities development in Malawi

Secondary cities are often overlooked in the context of development planning. Considering the common interpretations of the Urban / Rural binary, which suggests that people inhabit EITHER cities OR the countryside, secondary cities, or provincial cities, fall in between categories where realities are often more nuanced and complex. This study comes with an agenda to point to the critical role secondary cities should play, in establishing infrastructural, operational, and cultural feedback between both ends of the above-described binary. Those cities, if planned well, could play multiple roles in respect to both the urban and the rural economies.

Multi-Scalar Spatial Analysis and Design

At the core of this analytical multi-scalar process of analysis is the application of multi-scalar design thinking. The plans presented in this report aim to bridge scales of analysis and policy from national and regional scales, from watershed and district scale, down to the project level, and back again. This agenda of alignment between top-down and bottom-up realities comes to the fore not only through the intentional positioning of investment clusters towards the development of secondary cities but is further embedded in the actual implementation strategies of each cluster of investments, whether through phasing, financing, or partnership curation.

Prioritization for Development

In an environment where infrastructure offerings are severely lacking and budgets are highly constrained, it is imperative to maximize impact through project groupings and by designing infrastructure as multi-purpose provisions for a wide variety of beneficiaries and stakeholders. Such an agenda should be ideally implemented in a minimal set of locations, where groups of projects could emerge and build enough capacity and momentum to catalyze a local process of long-term development. Specifically, for the purpose of the master plans developed in those ‘intersections’ of opportunity, we propose investments in three key sectors, corresponding to the NT2063 pillars of Urbanization, Agriculture, Industrialization. Under each sector, we envision several possible projects taking place, tailored into each locality as demand and context allow.

Project process diagram




2019 -


Multi Scalar (National, District, City, Project)


Commercial, Infrastructure, Public Service, Landscape


First Hectares Capital, Malawi National Planning Commission, MwAPATA Institute


Research, Pre-Feasibility Design


Alexander D’Hooghe, Kobi Ruthenberg, Garine Boghossian


The Foundation for a Smoke-Free World (FSFW)