Adoption of Technology in African Building and Construction
- What is the potential for building and construction innovation in Africa, and how is it being held back?
- How can we better support communities through sustainable development?
- Does concrete have a permanent role in the construction of the future?
These were the questions posed during the 2021 Africa Proptech Forum panel, “Adoption of Technology in African Building and Construction.” The session hosted moderator Tosin Ajose of DealHQ Partners, panelists Apollo Buregyeya of Eco Concrete Ltd., François Perrot of 14Trees, and Emmanuel Stefanakis of EchoStone. The lengthy panel explored many topics, here are just a few fielded by EchoStone’s Chief Sustainability Officer:
Why are we not seeing a lot of homegrown technology coming out of Africa?
We don’t have time to address the larger economic issues and government policy issues, which would encourage local research and development, and production facilitation. It seems like the trend in the last few decades has been to shutdown a lot of production that was there traditionally and focus more on importation, unfortunately, but that’s a very large topic.
One of the things that we can address is architectural design and engineering. Some of the projects that we’ve done, for example, there were some cultural barriers to using a concrete roof, or some hesitance to do that when it was a traditional material applied to roof technologies. Instead we were encouraged to use an imported material from China – aluminum sheet metal roof. Architectural design, the tweaking of that design, to accommodate local materials. Francois pointed out the use of soil with cement is a traditional material, and we should be moving more toward those and away from the importing of materials. The issue is really infrastructure as well, for example applying sustainable development practices to infrastructure. There’s been a predominance, and this is probably one of the worst examples of importing western or industrialized countries technologies to Africa, of looking at traditional ways to construct infrastructure in African it depended a lot more on ecological systems and far less on engineered controls. For example, the management of storm water, and how curbs and drainage ditches and the destruction of wetlands have yielded to western and European methods and standards.
I’ve been involved with projects all over the world, in about 50 countries, and some of the better examples of my projects are where we reduce the dependence on concrete and engineered solutions and actually saved the project money while increasing ecological performance in infrastructure by using natural systems. That’s a very important factor that is often forgotten in communities and housing developments. So, there’s no simple answer to your question. I regret that I can’t dive more deeply into it, however, there is fundamentally the issue of more indigenous materials and traditional design and planning technologies.
What would you say has stifled the integration and adoption of African construction methodologies and the use of local materials in the global construction playbook?
It’s the application of foreign standards to place which have its own strengths and technologies. The second part of that is, innovations which are coming to forum – I’m aware of a technology which was developed through the LaFarge Foundation recently – which doesn’t use cement, it uses crushed limestone. Which is an ancient building material, I think the Romans used it quite effectively and created structures that are still standing today. The use of crushed limestone in place of cement, cement being imported, where limestone as Apollo pointed out is a local material. These kinds of innovation, the uses of fibers, microfibers, for reinforcement rather than imported steel to reduce cost, reduce carbon footprint, and at the same time increase durability and sustainability. I think it’s a combination of those two things. We’ve encountered this issue, Apollo raised in terms of standards. As our material is innovative, it is certified by the Swedish Concrete Institute, structural engineers in Europe, however, the codes that are applied in different countries stifle that kind of innovation. It’s both of those things together, I think the use of geopolymers, like Apollo also mentioned, are innovations which should be brought to the market very quickly.
In recent times, we’ve seen that energy efficiency has become a huge global phenomenon. I just want you to help us understand, how serious is this?
Well, in my opinion, this issue of energy efficiency and reduction of carbon footprint is a matter of life and death for our planet, and the inhabitants of it. How is Africa responding to it as a whole? Think it’s beginning to wake up. As Apollo pointed out, education and making people aware of these issues is very…
Sorry to cut you off Emmanuel, you just said to me that it’s a matter of life and death. You also said to me that Africa is not even awake, you said we are waking up. So, are we all at risk of dying? I need you to let us know, how serious is this?
I’ll have to defer to climate change experts to see what the ticking clock is telling us. It’s not a matter of centuries, it’s a matter of decades perhaps. I do want to give Africa credit for a major initiative. I think IFC’s EDGE program is making significant progress in making professionals and government officials aware of the desperate need to reduce energy consumption and therefore the carbon footprint.
We have done that by this innovative technology which reduces the production of concrete by about 50%. If you sharpen your pencil and apply the EDGE algorithm, a square meter of concrete wall is probably more expensive than a square meter of window. So, you can benefit in multiple ways by reducing energy consumption, improving comfort, and reducing cost. It’s a win-win-win. There’s so much that can be done at that scale just by informing architects, design professionals, engineers, people who are responsible for designing these structures to think of things in a different way.
The same thing as I said earlier with infrastructure. Water, along with energy, is becoming a precious commodity in every place – potable water in particular. We should be focusing on recharging our ground water supplies, not depleting our aquifers. Not using potable water for flushing toilets. We should be doing rainwater capture, which is a traditional way of doing things like infrastructure. All of these things are energy consumptive and have an enormous footprint.
I’m a big fan of going back to the future, using rainwater to flush toilets, using absorptive soils and geological formations to absorb water rather than concrete. There’s so much that can be done and save money.
Watch the full discussion to lean how EchoStone puts these visionary thoughts into practice through the EchoStone housing system.
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