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History and Planning of Sowa Town


Undoubtedly, the reader want to know where to find Sowa Town and the Soda Ash mine is in Botswana. So, here is a map.
The densly populated populated area in Botswana is to South-West in the corridor between Gaborone and Francistown. The Kalahari starts west of this area and is cattle country. Subsequently with low population density except for some traditional villages/towns (e.g Serowe, Maun and Ghanzi).
However, much minerals and other national resources are found in the Kalahari like copper and soda ash. Today, there is also oil prospecting in the barren lands.
Even a railway cutting west-wards from Palapye to Namibia is in the planning pipeline.
It's no doubt these western Kalahari parts of Botswana will be "opened up" for various mining and prospecting in the future. Thus, it is of importance how we plan our new towns of which Sowa is number 5.

Connection and distance between the "flower in the desert" - Sowa Town - and the plant can be seen from this Google image as well as road, railway and airport. The soda/salt plant is in the bow of the peninsula called Sua Spit.
The evaporation ponds can be seen from the moon, they say, and as you can see, quite colourful.

Pic is from Sept/05 and the pan has a water cover which happens for a short time annually (almost).
click pic


Sowa Town is new town no 5 in Botswana. It is quite unique that a developing country has so many new towns recently planned and built.
But it is a historical fact that the Tswana people often started new towns. That has happened frequently over time and is still happening. If we need a new town, let’s build it has been the theme of the past and often a consequence of internal rivalries as well as depleted environment.
And as we can see from the following brief history of Sowa, politicians and decision-makers prefer something newer than an upgrading of an old settlement. History repeats itself here – quite interesting I say (with an adopted understatement).
It has been known for decades that the brine at Sua Pan (early colonialist spelling of Sowa Pan) is well worth mining. Experimental mining in the 70-ies clearly indicated that. The problem was the distance to the wider market. Only South-Africa was in reach for competitive sales at market price.
Since early 1980 the extract licence was with British Petroleum. And BP was very much aware of the EU sanctions against apartheid RSA and kept the licence dormant. This fact more or less gave the US Salt Lake City company in Utah monopoly of delivering soda ash to RSA in these apartheid years (as the USA never fully endorsed the sanctions). And soda ash is/was essential for many important companies in RSA specialising in glass, fertilizers, soap and explosives and more.
The RSA government of the time was extremely nervous that USA too would be forced to join the EU sanctions. The RSA government of the time planned to open up a salt water soda factory but was held back by the enormous cost for such a venture.
Consequently, when it was clear (in the late 1980-ies) that the apartheid days were counted, Botswana had to act, not to be left with a resource undeveloped for the future. The licence for BP was cancelled and Gov of Botswana together with Anglo American and De Beers (companies that Bots since long had good working connections with) and AECI (African Explosives and Chemical Industries – connected to AA) made a joint company with licence to extract soda ash from Sua Pan.

A personal note: I was the resident representative for a Swedish planning firm – Swedeplan, a Government of Sweden so called “civil service export organization” and an arm of the Ministry of Housing and Planning. Being on SIDA contract In Botswana to work with the enhancement of physical planning in councils (i.e. decentralization) and strengthening the autonomy from the RSA apartheid dominance in the region! It is still a mystery to me that Sweden, so outspoken about the importance of the RSA boycott could allow its government subsidiary to be involved in giving RSA a hand in explosives manufacturing. But, obviously, I am not in pragmatic politics. All I heard from political pundits (SE) was – be discreet!

The time table for the planning was forced to say the least. First out was a regional study for the necessary residential areas and service for workers. This took most of the estimated planning time for the project. And without a site for the town decided, no air photos and maps were produced, unfortunately.
The regional study (by Swedeplan and head office involving experts Tim Greenhow and Sixten Larsson) favoured a site next to the Dukwe refugee camp and adjoining traditional village. This site was close to the so called “Bushman Mine” that was interesting for its vast copper deposits, although the world market price was not favourable for mining at the time being.
It made sense from a regional point of view to favour this location although the distance to the soda ash mine was quite long (45min bus drive). And, furthermore, Dukwe was along the highway between Francistown and Maun, another good advantage. (But, Dukwe also was a bit stigmatised as being a refugee camp, still needed as such.)
However, the decision-makers from Gov of Botswana preferred the Sowa site, now implemented. Honestly, it took me some time to arrive to some understanding of this.
By time I have come to the understanding that a new town in the “green fields” or uninhabited cattle grazing area where only one cattle baron had the “rights of use” could be a quick thing to decide and compensate but a village with hundreds of “rights of use” would need a tedious process of lengthy negotiations for implementing of infrastructure. Time was of essence and the royal family with rights to the area understood the need and urgency. This was initially not clear to the regional planning team of expatriates (me included).
With the timetable behind schedule it was high time for the actual layouts for the new town. An action committee was set up chaired by Botswana Housing Company (subsidiary to Gov of Bots) and members like Anglo Am, GoB Planning Dept, various service providers, the planning consultant (Swedeplan). Indeed, a fine method when quick results are needed and formerly used in the late 70-ies and early 80-ies for most urban planning. But the method had fallen into disuse in the mid 80-ies probably due to feelings from various councils, authorities and local politicians that things went too fast!
First stumble block was naturally the lack of detailed maps. But, fortunately, Swedsurvey had started a mapping project with Dept of Surveys and Mapping, Botswana, and a photo aircraft could quickly produce some accurate 1:5000 photos, uncorrected, but no problem – the area was absolutely flat and planning could start and be within 1m of correct position and eventually amended when corrected maps were available. That procedure took long and correct positions were adjusted by the surveyor at the setting out/pegging stage - this is mentioned due to the fact that many planners refuse to use a pencil or computer until correct maps are available and, thus, important time is lost – and by the way, why are we planners so eager to use computers when we can go to the surveyors and have the digital business done by them. Cadastral survey had been computerized for a decade before we planners had that tool at hand.
The preferred site about 14km east of the mine (the dusty winds from the salt pan is quite aggressive at times and excluded a theoretical site about 9km from the mine) was barren and flat with grass and bush as dominant features but for a tree curtain running from north to south. It was obvious to the action committee that the town had to be built inside the forest but not for me. After some arguments I had the support of the heavyweight Anglo Am representative, Mr Young - an architect like myself.
Building in the wood would destroy it – keeping outside would make it useful for recreation, schools etc. And plots outside would have planted trees that enhance the “forest” by time (my argument). It is now obvious from the Google photo above that so has happened.
But the deep loose sand under the grass was a problem for the constructors (BHC) and the problem needed clever engineering input. After advice from engineers, the Anglo Am architect decided that all digging for foundations/footings was out. Everything must be built on concrete rafts “sailing” on the sand! Eventually that turned out to be cheaper than conventional foundations – a lesson I still remember when designing houses in Botswana!
So, some parameters were decided on the spot – then back to office again for some design attempts to be presented to the committee in a few days time.
In rapid succession proposals were presented to the committee and it was for the Ministry planning representative to accept or refuse. As the Anglo Am architect (Mr Young) and myself were disgusted by the so called Urban Development Standards from the Ministry and we were convinced that Sowa Town must not be to that kind of (sub-) standard - the Ministry had in some weird way made minimum standard maximum standard – so it is even today!
The Ministry planner mumbling about “approved urban standards” was so to say ransomed by our committee. No wonder that earlier effective urban development committees had been abolished by bureaucrats and authorities – things went too fast and not according to sub-standards.
The planning went well and in no time the layouts were approved and implementation started, well, had already started with the construction of a local factory for the ready made units for the buildings.
Within short, the houses were occupied. But there were not many complete families (5,5 persons per plot) but more of single staff/workers sharing houses. The population wasn’t the average urban type. It was more like a “camp” for industrial employees. Why this?
Well, Soda Ash Botswana (SAB) was deliberately stymied by the Utah soda company people in 1993-94. Firstly they sent out rumours that the “pink” salt and ash from Sowa was under-standard. Investigations indicated - not at all! The pink colour was the same as for the flamingos, pink due to harmless algae’s, a colouor the salt actually shared with the flamingos. They were/are in good health and as the younger generation say - in the pink!
Then the price for Utah ash was cut close to a half in order to kill SAB. The mining company had to face liquidation and was eventually re-established as Botswana Ash with firm contracts with RSA and the new ANC government.
Business-wise, everything became prosperous and still is. But, staff/workers and investors had become cautious. They seemed not willing to bring their families and business to Sowa Town but stayed in their villages within more than an hours bus drive from the plant. And bussing even from Francistown became the order of the day.
Consequently, Sowa Town has most single workers with no families around. This fact has to be kept in mind when studies are made of the used “traditional” concept of planning. From what I see it takes time to create "urban" feelings in essentially "rural traditional" people when no Kgosi/Chief is around and instilling communal sense and behaviour in society. Well, this is changing now in our urban areas. Today people are asking leaders what to do with the open spaces they happen to have. AND they are taking time and effort to make them useful! Think if we had omitted them as IMF/WB experts once suggested!

Next chapter will be a presentation of the Sowa Town planning layouts. I will try and make the illustrations possible to enlarge.


FIG 3 Prel. Master Plan 1989 (click pic)

After the decision to build the new town at Tsiagake, about 14km east of the mine, in December 1988, a hectic planning period at Christmas time started. By mid Feb/89, the reference group had decided on the Preliminary Master Plan above. And, as you know by now, the actual mapping had not even started by then.

But it was a way out of this dilemma:
About this time, Swedsurvey had started a large mapping and support program for Dept of Surveys and Lands.
The program was managed by Åke Finnström at Swedsurvey and he could quickly direct an air craft to our site. And then in short time produce quite accurate but uncorrected photos in scale 1:5000. As the area was very flat, the planning should not be more than 1m off position, easily corrected when maps were available (or by the cadastral people at setting out stage). But we decided to call our plans “preliminary” because of this fact. Of course, we were almost daily checking our drafts on the ground with engineers at site.

Regarding the “spirit of the place” : It was - and had for centuries been “cattle” land. Deep sand with grass cover and thorn bush and a forest curtain running north south that was inked onto our temporary, home made base map (from photos). In this forest curtain we found a simple, traditional cattle camp, build and kept by herdsmen. We mapped this camp in a communal area next to the proposed “town center” but, unfortunately, the first road constructors missed our intention and destroyed it. So Sowa hasn’t any memories from past days except from stray cattle.

A Master Plan with consistency can not be created without in depth study of details like environmental blocks and neigh-bourhood units. They must be studied to get the overall dimensions correct. So, in fact, a Master Plan starts with studies of smaller units. Otherwise the planner finds himself in an ever ending series of revisions and re-approvals. That experience was used for the planning of Sowa Town and, consequently, the detailed plans were ready for presentation soon after the approval of the Master Plan.

The professional team for the Sowa planning and implementation is now presented as from the article in Planning/RSA from January 1991:

From Planning RSA 113/Jan 1991 (click pic)

The team was very effective – very good professionals! Particularly the essential surveyors that had to do much “extra” work due to the mapping situation. “Line up streets, roads, water mains and drains and everything goes like clock work" they said. Said and Done!
But the house designers/architects were a bit of a problem (to JW).
My own experience, supported by findings of the two Larsson ladies from Sweden (Anita and Viera) convincingly indicated that families in Botswana are living outside the house as much as inside. But this local tradition was incomprehensible to the housing architects or impossible for them to convince the client about. The UK way of living became the norm (as usual in urban areas here in Botswana).

As already mentioned, the standing, smirking joke over some beers at the golf club about Scandinavian planning, became facial spasms when the planning principles were accepted (especially point 3 below):

• Adaptability and flexibility to allow for growth
• Adaptation to the site and the provision for a good living environment
• Non-polarization of socio-economic groups
• Easy access to services for most of the people
• Facilitation of Botswana’s traditional cultural activities and social interaction;

Non-polarization means “housing mix”. Different income categories in the same neighbourhood unit – quite
remarkable, the club guys said! But the late president Sir Seretse Khama decided in the 70-ies that he wanted this (very traditional principle) to be re-introduced after studying possible solutions on a study tour to Sweden. Consequently, we Scandinavian planners were around in Botswana within short and adhering to this principle (= reintroducing it). Sheer old national policy, in other words, but nevertheless obstructed and smirched by the old colonials.

However, the last sentence of the table above was the most interesting to me. Botswana/Bechuanaland has been homeland for the Tswana people since the 1700-hundred. Large towns with more than 20 000 people were common. Spatial groupings and planning concepts are old and in fact traceable to the first Tswana towns in the Gauteng (Pretoria) area in today RSA – the origin of the first Tswana (Prof R J Mason 1980). Most prominent feature is the “arc and point” or “horseshoe” grouping in neighborhood units. That is a natural way of organizing private homes around semi-private open spaces for kraals and other communal use for cattle people. Thus areas for private, semi-private and public use have been in use here for hundreds of years.

This is reflected in the 1981 Urban Development Standards that I was involved in producing, once upon a time, but neglected in later editions of urban standards when open spaces became too small to allow for traditional grouping of plots around communal areas. Foreign donors and financial institutions were of the opinion that Botswana standards were excessive when the vast Kalahari was outside the fence!

I presented a paper, The Traditional Tswana Village – a neglected planning prototype, for a seminar with university students at the time of the Sowa Town planning. From which I will quote a few sentences about the Tswana traditional concept for neighborhood planning:

From The Traditional Tswana Village – a neglected planning prototype by Jan Wareus

Traditional town and Sowa Town

Traditional private plots were between 100-300 m2, enough for an outdoor living and food preparation over fires and other things.
The plots were in an arc around a half-private so called patlelo with a cattle kraal for the family cattle and for the half-grown children to play, the ones at home/school and not sent to the cattle posts that is!
So the plots were organized around a half-private space in this way for children and goats, calves and milk cows in a half-circular way, mostly. Large enough for the cattle kraal and a oxen wagon to turn around. And an small access road to plots for pedestrians and (later) cycles and cars. This is the local ancient tradition pointed out to me by prof R J Mason (The First Tswana/1980). Nowadays for all kind of cummunal use including the tents at funerals and weddings and of course, visiting cars!

This concept was well worth repeating and we did so in Sowa. The difference from Jwaneng was that the “pedestrian areas” was moved to the front of plots instead of being kept facing backyards. Similar concepts are invented in western planning from about early 1900 and thus a much later ”history”. This concept for the detailed planning was very much appreciated by the famous town planner/architect Ralph Erskine, when he visited Botswana in 1994 .

(Ralph Erskine, was in Botswana in June 1994 for an Urban Design Seminar, sponsored by SIDA as part of the running program. He smiled when I told him about taking “chances” due to the compressed program and said: Yes, you have to make sure you’re not completely wrong – and then go ahead!)

This conceptual approach resulted in a detailed plan within three weeks after the Master Plan. A very pressed job in the summer heat, indeed!

Now to the detailed plan that also had to be produced on uncorrected base maps..

Fig 4 DETAILED LAYOUT for the first phases of SOWA TOWN (i.e. 1989 – 2010):
(click pic)

As mentioned earlier, we choose to “plait” the blocs into the protecting forest curtain.

The forest could carefully be used for schools and service thus effecting minimal disturbance. And trees will soon be growing on the plots in the “bush savannah” thus enhancing the forest.

The environmental bloc are about 500 x 600 m and contain 400+ plots each (Self Service SS, Low Cost LC, Medium Cost MC and High Cost HC on the layout).

Two blocs share a Primary School and children’s play areas within ’sight’ from homes. Playgrounds for older children with football pitches are situated centrally in the blocs as well as major pedestrian ways.

Local service centres (S/C) are provided in the neighbourhood units and will hopefully provide pre-schools and self help services (e.g. washing machines etc). It should be noted that the semi-private patlelos are meant to be reserves for smaller playschools. But if there’s no children and no community feeling among the people residing there? Well, that is the problem, today.

We introduced new road standards (for Botswana urban areas) with what we called ”drivable pedestrian roads” in 7,5 m reserves (half of normal drivable standards of the time) as all bloc units have their own private open spaces. This was highly opposed by planning bureaucrats but was in line with the coordinating committee thinking and was accepted by the Minister.

Buss station, petrol filling station and industry plots were laid out south of the residential area (see Master Plan), close to the ”entrance” to the town – a well designed roundabout. Possible follow up industries (e.g. a glass manufactory) were also having land reserves close to the railway.

That, in short was the planning of Sowa Town in 1988 – 89. Of course, mistakes were made and your views are highly appreciated. But not much can be done today without beneficiary industries, unfortunately.

Consequently, it is interesting to read the homepage from the US Embassy in Bots that a glass factory is more than feasible in this country with all necessary ingredients available (and a lot of fluids in glass consumed). Let's hope that such a factory goes to Sowa Town and the population figures become more average for urban areas in this lovely country.

Jan Wareus Sept/09

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