Africa looks to past and future to meet the challenge of housing for all

By James Hall

Analysis in brief: A new generation of African builders is coming up with local and African-oriented solutions to housing shortages and the expense of building. Some of their inventions are inspiring.

“African solutions to African problems” is a phrase heard in all matters, from humanitarian and political crises that affect the region to infrastructure and economic challenges. Housing for all is a need that is becoming more urgent as urbanisation accelerates throughout the continent. Old ways of building are being reconsidered by young construction engineers who apply new technologies, and in some cases, revisit the value of traditional materials. The goal is affordable, decent housing that appeals to the African lifestyle. Working against the affordability of housing are outdated building regulations, inefficient supply chains, and a lack of construction personnel with advanced training. A holistic approach to meeting Africans’ housing requirements is being undertaken, from shaking up local bureacracies to skills training, because it is now understood that good housing is not just an individual desire but a social and national economic necessity. Decent housing improves its occupants’ health and education, providing water, hygienic facilities and a place for students to do homework.

Africa’s growing middle class is responsible for an enlarging home ownership demand. Some economists feel it is better to redefine the middle class in terms of those who own homes, whose equity represents economic capital and stability, rather than simply in terms of their discretionary spending. The principal requirement for home ownership in Africa is affordability. Affordability is a consequence of several factors, including supply and demand, construction costs and the cost of finance in a country. Of these, visionary construction engineers are looking at material inputs to substantially lower the cost of building and subsequently maintaining a home.

Tiny homes are appearing all over South Africa
Image courtesy of Copia Eco Cabins

Imaginative thinking lowers the cost of materials

Confronting the dilemma of cement is a good starting point for African builders. In Africa, cement typically costs about three times the world price, largely due to its importation from abroad. More cement makers are gradually starting operations for the domestic market. However, this comes at a time when the environmental impact of concrete worldwide is a growing concern. Scientists are developing a new formula for cement that contains self-activating limestone-producing bacteria that, in effect, create “self-sealing” cement that will last longer and require less replacement cement in the long run. While this and other advances are welcomed, the use of cement in Africa is being questioned. Cement is toxic, and cement dust is unhealthy, particularly in hot and humid African climates that combine to corrupt the indoor air quality of cement homes. A new Ghanaian firm Hive Earth, based in Accra, has been working with cement substitutes since its operation began in 2016. Local materials naturally lend themselves to the living requirements of the African environments from which they come. Hive Earth has invented an eco-friendly solution called “rammed earth,” which compresses locally sourced laterite, clay and granite chippings with only a 5% cement solution as a binding agent. Significantly less costly than all-cement homes, a one-room prototype should be ready by the end of 2020 with a sales price of US$ 5000. Though small, the house offers solutions to affordability, environmental and living quality issues. The rammed earth technique is actually an update on traditional mud house building. Mud stucco buildings are famously good at retaining cool interiors against the hot African sun. This natural attribute is supplemented by the Hive Earth engineers who have teamed with German counterparts to design an underground cooling system for the homes. Solar pumps draw up cool air from wells dug two or three metres deep into the earth beneath a home’s foundation. The pump costs US$ 300 but requires no electricity payments to keep running.

Afriprecast Factory
Image courtesy of Rwanda’s Trade and Industry (2020)

Pandemic brings new techniques that are likely to remain in use

Another construction technology being utilised to make affordable housing is prefabricated materials such as those produced by Afriprecast, a Rwandan company. Having uniformed items from wall panels to roofs that slot together like puzzle pieces makes construction work faster. This also lowers costs. While many construction companies had utilised drones prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the pandemic has made the use of these remote-controlled aircraft essential as personnel are kept off building sites during national lockdowns. A surveyor using a drone’s aerial imagery can survey a site in minutes, compared to the weeks or months once required for such work on the ground using conventonal tools. This is another money-saving innovation. Once the pandemic runs its course, drones will remain, doing other tasks like inspecting high-rise building exteriors and even transporting small loads during construction more rapidly than cranes are able to do. Drone software operating technology is advancing to the point that drone pilots are being replaced by non-specialists. Robotics is also entering the field, with robots engineered with construction tasks in mind, such as laying bricks. The technology is in its infancy but offers considerable possibilities. Robotics also offer a way for Africa to develop a skilled construction workforce. Instead of laying bricks, workers can be trained to operate robots that then perform repetitive or dangerous tasks.

With Africa’s population forecast to grow dramatically this century, demand for affordable housing will also rise. The innovations of African builders are inspiring, combining as they do traditional techniques and materials with modern cutting-edge technologies. However, more innovation is required to meet the challenges of climate change and future disease pandemics, the latter which will necessitate homes that include workspaces for adults and for children. Land use regulations and building codes must also be updated and enforced to enable Africa’s improving and affordable homes to be available to all.

Critical points:

  • Africa’s continuing population growth necessitates accelerated building of affordable housing
  • New building techniques are aimed at making homes not only affordable but environmentally friendly and multi-purpose
  • The number of skilled African construction workers, engineers and project managers is gradually growing

The views expressed are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of In On Africa.