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Women in Climate Change – Malindi Msoni  

Malindi Msoni is a Research Fellow in the Transport & Infrastructure Development Unit at ZIPAR (Zambian Institute for Policy Analysis and Research). Here she shares her experiences as a professional economist in the Transport Sector, and as a woman working to address Climate Change.

Tell us briefly about the project you’re working on.

My current project aligns with CCG’s overarching research theme on low carbon transport futures in Zambia. In collaboration with the Institute for Transportation Policy and Development (ITDP), our primary focus is on transforming the streets of Lusaka – the capital city of Zambia – to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists. Recognising the importance of reducing dependence on fossil fuels within Zambia’s transportation sector, our study emphasises the enhancement of non-motorised transport (NMT) alongside the development of sustainable public transportation.

To tackle this challenge comprehensively, we have adopted a multipronged approach involving interviews with NMT users in Lusaka; NMT user volume counts across the city; an infrastructure audit of existing transport facilities to assess their suitability for pedestrians and cyclists; and focus group discussions with vulnerable road users and decision-making bodies.

Our focus has been on finding workable and cost-effective measures to enhance NMT, particularly considering that Zambia already has an NMT strategy in place, yet its implementation has been slow. Our preliminary assessment suggests that the sluggish implementation can be attributed to the financial challenges associated with executing the strategies that have been recommended.  So, we’re looking to identify quick interventions that can be implemented as the country explores financing opportunities for bigger projects. Additionally, we aim to facilitate constructive dialogue between decision-making bodies and potential financing institutions, including cooperating partners and the private sector, to secure funding for more comprehensive interventions aimed at enhancing NMT in the medium to long term.

What is the area that needs the most focus?

Right now, much like many countries in the Global South, the majority of people – over 60% – walk for travel. Despite this picture, investments in the transportation sector, particularly in road expansion, rehabilitation and construction, have largely catered to motorists, neglecting the needs of the walking population.

The fact that the majority of Zambians already walk aligns very well with the broad objective of decarbonizing the transportation sector. Thus, our objective is to sustain and encourage this practice while persuading those who currently drive to consider adopting walking, cycling or public transport. Unfortunately, the existing NMT infrastructure falls short, leading those who have the means, to opt for private vehicles.

That’s our big picture: by successfully persuading individuals who drive, to transition to sustainable modes of transport, such as walking, cycling or public transport, we’ll have achieved our goal.

Who are you working with on this project?

The project itself is being delivered by ZIPAR and ITDP, but of course we’ve had to engage with several stakeholders here in Zambia to collect information. These include prominent government bodies such as the Ministry of Transport and Logistics, essential implementing agencies such as the Zambia Police, Road Transport and Safety Agency and the National Road Fund Agency. Additionally, we have engaged institutions advocating for vulnerable road users such as the Zambia Agency for Persons Living with Disabilities, selected Civil Society Organisations and cooperating partners like the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). 

What about the potential of mass transport to connect people in rural communities or people with disabilities who don’t have as much accessibility?

As I mentioned earlier, the enhancement of NMT must go hand in hand with initiatives to improve public transportation and that’s largely because of how Zambia’s major cities have been developing over the last decade or more.  The prevailing urban development pattern, notably in major cities like Lusaka, exhibits significant uncoordinated sprawl. This trend has resulted in a significant portion of the population living far from their workplaces and essential amenities, leading to longer commutes that often render walking and cycling impractical. A similar pattern is seen in rural areas where the considerable distances between amenities necessitate long walks or cycling for access.

This picture underscores the imperative for the establishment of efficient and sustainable public transport systems. Presently, Zambia lacks a dedicated public transport system.  What is normally termed public transport is primarily provided by private operators. Unfortunately, the current service is expensive and falls short of international standards, lacking comfortable services and reliable schedules. Attempts to reorganise these private operators to align with public transport standards have proven challenging.

Recognising these shortcomings, the government has expressed intentions to invest in bus rapid transit (BRT) and light rail to address the deficiencies in the existing system. However, funding challenges have been cited as a hurdle in the implementation of these transformative measures.  

And I suppose if the city is quite sprawling, then knowing where you would build these routes is difficult, isn’t it?  You would ideally need to plan the route and the houses at the same time.

Exactly, yes. A primary concern, already evident in the country’s efforts to develop NMT infrastructure, revolves around conflicts in land use. Securing suitable spaces for BRT infrastructure, including dedicated bus lanes, can become particularly problematic when potential routes intersect with existing developments. A worrying trend is emerging where dedicated road reserves, which could serve as optimal spaces for NMT infrastructure or BRT lanes, face encroachment issues. Further, as you rightly highlight, determining the most effective BRT routes in sprawling urban environments such as Lusaka may prove challenging, given the unpredictability of development patterns.

To go back to your question about people who are marginalised by the current road situation, vulnerable road users, notably persons living with disabilities, haven’t been adequately considered in public transport investments. In Zambia, this oversight particularly affects persons with disabilities who often require assistance to access public transportation. This is worsened by the inherent inaccessibility of roads, making it necessary for persons with disabilities to always move with someone to access public transportation. About 15% of the Zambian population has a disability, and the current road infrastructure, designed without due consideration, poses significant challenges, especially for wheelchair users.

Furthermore, a lack of street lighting in most parts of the city renders roads unsafe for nighttime travel, disproportionately affecting women who, as a result, feel insecure walking at night. This safety concern extends to children as well. Notably, a concerning 50% of road fatalities are pedestrians. Simple, yet impactful solutions, such as improved street lighting and improved pavements, can go a long way in addressing some of these challenges. It is noteworthy that the Zambia Agency for Persons Living with Disabilities has been actively engaged in this project, contributing invaluable perspectives and insights. Their involvement underscores the importance of incorporating diverse voices to create inclusive and accessible transport systems.  

I wanted to talk to you about why you think it’s important to have women in the decision-making process and the planning process for clean energy.

Speaking from my own experience in the transportation sector, having women involved in the decision-making process is crucial if we are to advance transport and climate action. The reality is that women use all modes of transport differently from men, and factors such as access, costs and safety concerns will impact them differently. Women are generally more likely than men to feel unsafe walking, in buses and public spaces. Also, because they often shoulder the burden of caregiving, they travel more often than men with children and other dependents.

Unfortunately, transport planning often fails to consider these differences in women’s travel behaviour. Consequently, since women feel this lack of inclusiveness the most, they are more likely to push for change and will tend to have stronger preferences for improving sustainability than men. This is precisely why we need more women at the decision-making table. After all, who better to represent the needs of women than women themselves?

And as caregivers, they would speak for the elderly, or they might speak for people with disabilities and for children.

Yes, and this emphasises my earlier point that women who typically fulfil caregiving roles are inclined to play a more transformative role in reshaping transportation systems. Naturally, women’s concerns tend to go beyond their individual experiences, encompassing other vulnerable road users such as persons with disabilities, senior citizens and children, whom they often travel with. Because of this, women realise that it is in their best interest to advocate for transportation systems that are not only accessible and safe for themselves but for everyone.

In essence, improvements aimed at addressing gender specific barriers inherently contribute to creating transport systems that benefit everyone. Women by virtue of their experiences bring a comprehensive understanding to the discourse on sustainable transport, promoting a broader and more inclusive approach to enhancing transportation.

Let’s talk about your professional journey, what have been the barriers you personally have faced as a woman in this sector and how have you overcome them?

As a female transport researcher working within a quasi-government think-tank, a large part of my professional interactions occurs with predominantly male transport professionals. In many instances, I have found myself in rooms where over three-quarters of the participants are male. While I don’t stand out as the smallest and youngest woman in the sector, I have occasionally wondered whether stature and age might put me at a disadvantage. There were moments earlier in my transport career when I wondered if having a larger stature would garner more attention. This sentiment still resurfaces at times.

On top of this, I am one of the few economists working in a sector that is dominated by engineers – predominantly male. Over the years, I have observed how the role of economists and other non-engineering professionals in the transport sector has often been marginalised.

How have I overcome these challenges? By showcasing my knowledge of a spectrum of issues within the sector. As an economist, I know I bring a unique perspective to discussions surrounding transportation, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of the field. In essence, acknowledging that my role differs from engineers, planners, geographers and so on, and rightly so, has helped me navigate some of the challenges I have encountered. Embracing the uniqueness of my contribution and acknowledging the diversity of expertise required in the transport sector has enabled me to assert my presence and make meaningful contributions.

If we can get more women to be interested in transport and particularly in the conversation of decarbonizing transport, I am certain it will get a lot less weird for the women who are already engaged in the sector right now.

Going back to before you came to this role, at what point did you feel inspired to work in this area?

My journey into transport began as I was pursuing an Honours Degree in Economics at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa. Upon completing our coursework, we were asked to propose topics for our research papers. This request came while back home for holidays, and I remember saying to myself: ‘I don’t want to pursue the typical economics research questions, such as the impact of the exchange rate on…”. I was more interested in something different, something tangible in its effects.

The realisation struck me while seated in a cramped minibus stuck in traffic congestion. I said to myself ‘I wonder if an economist could study transport?’.  That’s where it started. I grabbed my phone and searched ‘is economics related to transport?’ and that’s how I discovered the subject of transport economics.  I decided to centre my research paper on alleviating traffic congestion in developing countries.

Despite my initial focus on a transport related topic, my Master’s programme ironically led me down the path of macroeconomics, where I explored the impact of quantitative easing on capital flows to the BRICS economies. Midway through my programme, I joined ZIPAR as a researcher specialising in public sector economics. This notwithstanding, my interest in transportation persisted, and one of my colleagues who was aware of this interest, continued to engage me in ongoing transport studies.

Ultimately, I transitioned to the transport and infrastructure development unit, a move that aligned perfectly with my aspirations. Since then, I have remained dedicated to the exploration and enhancement of the transport sector in my country.

What would you say to women who are thinking of working in this area, considering that it is still quite dominated by males?

I would say go for it. I would wholeheartedly encourage any woman considering entering the transport sector to go for it. Women are considerably underrepresented in the transport sector, and it would really benefit from the inclusion of more women professionals at all levels.

Yet, I am acutely aware of the barriers women face when attempting to enter this field. One particular barrier I am committed to breaking down is the narrow perception of skills required in the transport sector. While the industry certainly demands engineers, urban planners, geographers, it extends far beyond these roles. To reshape the transport sector towards sustainability, we need a diverse range of skills, spanning from sociologists to teachers, from psychologists to economists. This sector welcomes a broad spectrum of expertise.

It never fails to amaze me how some people, notably colleagues, express surprise when they discover that I, as an economist, have chosen to specialise in the transport sector. However, this surprise does not deter me; in fact, it fuels my determination. I am committed to dispelling these misconceptions and broadening perspectives, particularly for young women considering a career in transport. I know I am making some headway because on occasion, I have witnessed the positive impact of my choice. I receive messages from individuals expressing gratitude for my efforts to impart knowledge about the sector.

Following some of my efforts to raise awareness on the work we are doing on non-motorised transport, some individuals admitted that they now perceive roads differently, while others acknowledge the prevalent challenges in our transport sector, such as inadequate infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists.

I strongly believe that increased awareness of the many professional opportunities in transport will pave the way for more women to join the sector. By continuing to raise awareness about the diversity of roles and skills needed, we can contribute to a more inclusive and vibrant future for women in the transport industry.

Thank you Malindi, for a fascinating interview. Thank you for your time and for sharing your expertise with us.