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“We Are In The Process Of Undertaking Huge Projects In A Bid To Solve Existing Housing Problems:” President Isaias

It is to be recalled that President Isaias Afwerki conducted a 3-day extensive interview from the 6th  to 8th  of September 2013, with local media outlets pertaining domestic, regional and international issues. Excerpts of the fourth part of the interview follow:

 

Your Excellency, as you mentioned it earlier thermal energy is expensive. So are we going to depend on this source for the future or are there other options? For instance, is there a plan to supply it from the neighboring countries? Solar energy, thermal energy or other renewable resources? What can you tell us about this issue?

Ideologically it is feasible. Sudan for example has energy harnessing projects in Merewi and Setit Abara supplying thousand of mega watts. Since water is the main source it has more advantage than the thermal energy. We need to put into consideration the regional issues if we set up the electric line to the west and we could provide a temporary source for the time being and we could also develop this. In a nutshell the use of the steam energy is very expensive. You have to know the price for one watt per hour and its fairness. If we can get electric source in fair price from the neighboring countries, I don’t think there is any problem if there is a mutual agreement. This doesn’t mean that we haven’t considered this option. For instance, we could buy supply rights from Ethiopia’s millennium source if they are selling such rights (aside the border issue) the same applies with South Sudan if there is such a source in the country. The infrastructure programs are the basic factors which influence the cooperation and support of regional issues. For instance, Djibouti; do they have it or not is another question; however it is said that they are going to harness geothermal energy source. If they are selling it and if the kilowatt per hour is favorable in terms of price and provision we can buy from there too. Around Tesseni and Assab, we have our natural resources capable of harnessing these energies. This means that we can initiate it as members of “Rift valley” countries. We could have also other resources.

What is important is, are we competent to minimize our expenditure in energy; be it that we harness it ourselves or else that we got from our neighbors. If there is an opportunity there is no difficulty to buy it. We shouldn’t be influenced with a narrow way of thinking. There are also programs of renewable energy as a pilot study. We can also incorporate all the aforementioned possibilities. In terms of solar energy we can determine the potential according to its mega watt. We do have the potential but exploiting it is a bit expensive. Overall, as a final procedure of this process is to do all the paperwork on this topic and evaluate all the feasible possibilities that can eventually yield us the targeted growth when applied in relation to strengthening the cells of the source of electricity at affordable costs. These points need prior considerations beforehand and that is why we are evaluating the whole process. It is already on agenda with our neighboring countries. The main point is that whether or not this web of sourcing can reach to our system? Is it compatible? Is the supply we get from them secured? Is it affordable? Does it match our level and the stage we currently are on? These are some of the many questions that are put aside for consideration. However, right now the immediate plans are directed towards the infrastructure projects that need immediate attending.

Mr. President the price of housing both for sale and rent is creating a huge pressure on the public. How do we come up with a permanent solution for the problem of housing and buildings and its consequences? How does the national plan look like towards the development in housing and its prioritization and implementation? Is there any plan to develop and strengthen the domestic produce of cement, bricks and other construction materials?

Yes there is a plan but in a nutshell the plans we are being pursuing so far remain to be as ‘good plan’ inspired from good intentions and wishes. Good wishes are always good initiators but finally by the end of the day one must be able to accomplish these wishes through tangible actions. In accordance to our historical heritage and resources, the demand of housing for residence and other service rendering places in cities, towns and villages, aside from tourism attractions, if seen only from the domestic perspective, it is safe to conclude that all the program inspired by the goodwill were not successful. Every one has the right to have a house to live in. but despite all the planning and efforts, this hasn’t worked yet. There are some initaitives to encourage private investors.

For example let’s take for instance the Kushet housing project. How far has it solved the problem of housing in the city? It can’t even be backed up with numbers and statistics. It can’t even be categorized as houses. But in contrast the Sembel, Massawa and the Korea project can be mentioned as good examples of projects towards addressing this question of housing. I can’t say it is the best yet but it has served the purpose of its construction- it has lightened the pressure of housing demands in the city. The journey we embarked to be self-reliant in our approaches towards construction like that in Massawa undertaken by Musa Ali Construction Company hasn’t yet being finished due to some obstacles. The same goes to the Mai- Hutsa project. The only houses that have gained good evaluation are the villas that are currently inhabited by government officials. But how much of the problem has been solved with this? What have we accomplished so far with our plans and wishes to have nothing but the best? Nothing has been solved yet. It can be done through a private sector, Eritreans in Diaspora have a keen interest in this arena. They want to work and accomplish for themselves and the nation at large. We need to revise our policies and plans and come up with much more effective and practical plans and policies that can yield tangible results and that can also root out our problems of housing. So we are starting afresh.

Here there are some basic materials that should be supplied. One of the many is technology. We tried the thermonor technology in Asmara in a certain zone but the program could not be pursued any further neither the technology. Again there was this project in Masswa in Alebu where the N-2 technology is applied, it was considered effective, efficient and cost-effective, yet we were not able to use this either. A successful project is the one in Massawa, the precast project; we have managed to build bridges and other infrastructures. In contrast to other technologies it is the best so far in terms of cost-effectiveness and efficiency. Nevertheless, when will be the time to own a house or build one for those who are currently sacrificing their time and effort in national developmental activities? Moreover, how will he/she afford the price? What kind of house will that be and where is it going to be built? These aforementioned questions and more should be researched with regards to their social and economic aspects and should be provided with the right technology and resources.

The plan to apply the most cost-effective, efficient and quality technology that will help us approach our goals in constructing efficient houses will serve us as a stepping-stone towards addressing the issue of housing in general. This should not only be confined in Asmara and its surroundings but should also cover all the other towns and their surroundings’ too. In the future we should muster all our experiences, research the target areas and apply the best technology to a synergic effect.

We have machineries and other construction materials. This goes well with the construction of roads and infrastructure and it is suffice to say that we have no weakness in that arena. In short, we have amassed enough raw materials. This complies with the broad plan we have in securing housing demands in the country. Such plans cannot be undertaken by importing cement from abroad. In addition, we cannot build houses only with bricks. There is a huge demand for cement and the factory has been set up for this purpose. This factory has to be able to operate 24 hours a day without depending on supply of electricity from the Hirgigo electric source. Nevertheless, for the immediate solution we have installed the technology and have initiated the housing projects, regardless of the current position of the cement factory. It also requires other building materials. Let’s not forget the question of bricks here. Ginda’e bricks factory cannot even begin to sate the local demand and its quality could use some refinement. We need a factory that produces a product that meets the requested demand, quality and affordable. Parallel to the housing programs we need to supply the entire infrastructure needs like health services, education, sports activities, recreation centers, markets. Even if we cannot take on such projects on our own, we could broaden our expertise through cooperation with our partners. Therefore, this is a just pilot project. We have to get ready thoroughly and cover all the basic factors before we take on the big projects. We need to fulfill provision of electricity and other economic services. We can say that although it needs some refinements, we have general national plan for housing- both residential and other services in the country.

We have learned a lot from our experiences to start afresh. This does not mean that the new plan we are incorporating now is perfect with no flaws and that it will solve every problem. However, since the question of housing is one of the very big issues with a high priority on the agenda, we have tried to fulfill what it requires to embark on a journey to address this issue. However, to address this issue properly and say that we have taken all the proper measurement we need to secure enough cement provision for it is the basic factor in construction.
Who is the beneficiary of this project is another topic of discussion for another time being. It is safe to conclude that we have come so far from the point of the start although so many shortcomings were observed with our previous approaches. We are in stage where we can march forward with our strengthened good wishes and aspirations. It is not always bad to be modest, sometimes big bubbles just burst easily.

Your Excellency, it is to be recalled that the housing construction has been temporarily halted and hence the people involving in the field were particularly hurt. But since the sector has the potential to open up opportunity in terms of huge employment and the growth of private sectors what is the plan to encourage housing project by individuals at the moment?

Many good intentions have not been used to do good works. It might not be the right time for criticism but it is those private sectors who are engaged in disseminating propaganda saying that they could do better job than what the government is doing. However, if the private sector had done a good job in utilizing and exploiting the different opportunity the government had created in housing project, agriculture, and other areas we would have been held back. Were these opportunities been properly used? Or have they been squandered? We need to give tangible evidence to this effect. The issue is not about separating the private sector from the government. There is no such thing. We need to be thorough in our definition of the private sector. What is this sector? How does it function? In which fields does it operate? How about its finance? We have to talk issue by issue with concrete evidence.

When we talk about the private sector in relation to housing projects the issue and focus should not be confined only in Asmara. What has it achieved? Even in the relatively successful projects like Sembel Housing Project (Dembe Sembel) complex, there are a lot of misdeeds encircling it. The speculation and misdeed in the Tesa (traditional land allocation system) is staggering. There might admittedly be financial constraints but ultimately the land has to be properly used. How was the hundredth of hectares of land that were permitted to people who supposedly were to develop it and export its yield used? We need not go in to details.

Development programs like Bademit and Gerset have to be ultimately developed by individuals. But such people have also to be qualified and able to utilize the resources properly. And the projects must ultimately benefit the wider people who are working there. These people can get training and gradually garner know-how and money to join the private sector. It is the people who can work off this projects that can be called the private sector. The concerned bodies in various fields might better answer this but the involvement of the private sector should be scrutinized in terms of how much investment and work has it done and what the outcome was in its contribution to development . The issue therefore is not about the dichotomy between private sector and the government. First of all the private sector cannot replace government institutions. Without being pressured by the western economic philosophy we need to first create the condition and environment to develop the private sector. There has to be the proper infrastructure, declaration, and policies to accommodate the sector. Having private sector here and there, and speculation couldn’t even sustain the developed countries as the crises they are in attest to this fact. We don’t want to repeat this experience. Without going to the philosophical debate, we need to deeply understand ways that could create conducive environment to the flourishing of the sector.

We cannot develop our economy otherwise; the government should contribute its due share in this respect. After we prepare the condition then the people must be the beneficiaries. We didn’t struggle so that only the few could benefit. And we cannot build a nation like this. Some criticize saying ‘opportunities for investment are not given’. But the people need to be aware of the reality on the ground about the preparation that has been made in every sector and their development. You, the journalists should show the picture by seeking answer from the concerned bodies.

As you have stated the solution for the housing problem is constructing new ones. But what can be done to alleviate the problems in relation to the high price of rent temporarily? Is the government also getting its due share from it in terms of tax?

It is a big and an important issue. We can talk a lot about it and identify the problems of the costs of shortages of houses. As I said before the good intention and wish we have could not get us to the place we want simply because of shortage of supply. There should be enough houses with reasonable price. We can ask why the price went so high but the ultimate solution is to build more. The current price of houses is very contentious issue and the concerned offices should give explanation in another occasion. The issue might have more to do with Asmara. Are the houses in Asmara enough to accommodate its population? How about the problem associated with circulation of ownership? Issue by issue they need to be investigated.

Especially in Asmara, there are numerous illegal practices that harm people. It is said that the demand and supply is causing the soaring of rent price. Although inflation is natural in an economy, this particular issue of house rent needs to be seen in comparison to other economic activities. The main victim here is wage earning workers who work in government institutions and who pay rent. Indeed this also includes people who live in government owned houses. But how could others manage to live in rent houses owned by individuals with the salary they get? If there are legal contracts how can the price go high? The other issue is that the owners who rent their house have to pay proper tax to the government progressive with their income. But there is a scenario where owners could increase the price of rent by threatening customers of eviction while not increasing their payment of tax accordingly. Such practice need to be promptly curbed before it becomes part of the common practice or culture. The perpetrators also need to be held accountable to their action. Protecting customers from unjust practice is the responsibility of the government and its institutions. Otherwise what does authority mean? What does being citizen or right mean? What does law and order mean? The issue could only get worse with time. There might be some corrupt people engaged in corrupt actions and abuse of power. But ultimately house rent price need to be fair.

At independence in 1991 the first action of the government was to return the houses that were confiscated by the Dergue regime to their rightful owners. It is ironical to watch now owners doing whatever they want in house transactions under shady agreements where the government is deprived of its rightful benefit. The issue is not one we can just address in this interview.

We need to study the issue of house rent to bring the solution. Owners have the right to make a decent profit through renting their house. But the practice of house renting that is harming customers need to be rectified. It is an unacceptable scenario in need of a thorough diagnosis and solution. The concerned government institution and bodies must address the issue properly.

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