Phioneers’ Solution to Affordable Housing in The Gambia
Feb 2021 | Makers of Multipliciti
Makers of Multipliciti is a series of interviews with architects, manufacturers and developers to uncover the challenges in the construction industry and explore possibilities of manufacturing future buildings.
What does Phioneers do?
We create unimaginable realities through sustainable and eco-friendly architecture, engineering and technology. In layman’s terms we find the most sustainable and eco-friendly solutions to environmental, social and economic challenges related to infrastructure and development.
Our consultancy wing works with developers and architects on private and public projects of all scales to ensure that the most sustainable solutions are used to reduce the carbon footprint, provide opportunities for local residents and businesses and most importantly incorporate solutions that preserve the environment.
The ES:E Living project will provide low-cost eco-friendly homes for the many who earn under $5 a day. We are harnessing local skills and techniques, blended with modern technologies to come up with a truly sustainable housing solution that will be rolled out at scale. We are on the MVP development stage of this project in partnership with a major university in London (name cannot be disclosed yet).
What inspired you to start Phioneers?
A combination of being able to live in and visit many developing countries plus my love for engineering and technology inspired me to be the change I want to see in the world by using my knowledge and skills to solve real-world problems.
During the period that I lived in The Gambia, I can vividly remember several occasions when a relative from our native village would call my dad to inform him that their house had collapsed during the heavy rains. I could only imagine how it felt to lose all your belongings and home, leaving you stranded with nowhere to live. And construction costs for a cement block home made it nearly impossible for them to afford. I made it a mission to come up with a solution that would be affordable.
In addition to this, I’ve always loved watching nature shows on the discovery channel and it always saddens me to know that all the beautiful natural habitats are being destroyed because of the needs of human beings. In The Gambia, many areas that were rich with forests have now been cleared for housing projects. The problems caused by unsustainable development methods have also motivated me to start Phioneers to influence a more sustainable way of development.
Nothing is more fulfilling than being able to improve the quality of life for the less fortunate and help save the planet at the same time.
What are some of the biggest challenges to develop affordable housing in The Gambia?
- The average price of a newly built home in The Gambia is not affordable to those on low incomes. This is because of many reasons including the labour costs and the cost of materials.
- The rate at which large areas of land are being cleared to accommodate the demand for housing is not sustainable as a lot of natural resources and habitat are being destroyed. Large areas of forests are being cleared to create construction materials and large areas of beach are being cleared to make construction sand. In a nutshell, the environment is taking a big hit.
Unclear land rights in sub-saharan Africa are the biggest obstacles to developing affordable housing; how will Phioneers solve this problem?
Often, land purchases happen without the right legal documents and this causes future disputes between two or more parties who all claim ownership of the same area. In other cases, where dictatorships exist, land gets snatched by force with no chance of reclaiming the land. This happens mostly when the land is in an area where a major project is being planned.
Our legal partners will also make sure they do their due diligence to ensure that the ownership/rights to any land used for our projects will be fully verified. This applies to both private and government projects. This will help mitigate the risk of having any disputes further into the building phase.
In the past two decades, we have seen rapid urbanization in Asia that has led to economic growth as well as environmental issues. Do you think Sub-Saharan Africa’s road to urbanization will be different?
I think the main differences will be in the materials and technologies used. Each continent has been blessed with its own ancient, traditional and modern building techniques that were and are very much based on the materials available locally.
I have studied many major city projects in Asia and some really cool developments have been made. I think Africa is not where Asia is yet, but it has the opportunity to learn from the challenges and mistakes the Asian countries have faced during their development.
For example, China has built a lot of residential areas and structures like bridges over the past decade to meet the needs of the growing population. In most cases they chose to build quickly, meaning there is a possibility that certain checks and certifications were skipped or bypassed. Some developments were built at a scale faster than how a Country like England would build due to regulation, permit and construction standards. The disadvantages of the speed opens up the possibilities of mega accidents due to faults. The Three Gorges Dam, for instance, the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, became an environmental catastrophe. And the towns of Yujiapu, a replica of Manhattan outside Tianjin, and Tianducheng, a replica of Paris outside Shanghai, were shoddily smacked together and are now abandoned Potemkin villages.
As much as Africa urgently needs infrastructure, it needs to find a balance between speed and taking time to allow for the right checks to take place in order to avoid issues in the future.
What are some of the traditional building techniques that you want to preserve when developing affordable housing in The Gambia?
I am a fan of history and looking back to 1000s of years ago when some of the World’s greatest wonders were built including the Great Pyramids in Egypt. This is proof that the knowledge and skills were largely available and Africa did not need to build “the western way” as it had its own methods and techniques.
Fast forward to the recent years, across the continent of Africa, each region built its infrastructure using the resources available. For example the Kassena people of Burkina Faso build their houses entirely of local materials: earth, wood and straw. They mix soil with straw and use moistened cow dung to a state of perfect plasticity, to shape almost vertical surfaces. They finish with amazing structures with traditional patterns and designs. In places like Congo, Benin, Cameroon and Angola, Bamboo houses were built in abundance especially in the villages close to the rivers and lakes.
In the rural areas of The Gambia, mud/clay is used commonly to build homes, but its durability and structural strength are not optimized, so during the rainy season, many lose their homes.
I want to harness these traditional building techniques and enhance their performances with modern technology and engineering. There is an abundance of clay in The Gambia so it will be a sustainable solution, when mixed with other materials of course :)
Other than affordable housing solutions, will Phioneers provide any other services to help boost the local economy?
Yes indeed, the affordable housing solution is only a piece of the bigger picture.
We envision developing towns and cities using the same principles of sustainable development. By using local materials and local human resources, we will create more jobs and opportunities for local people and businesses to thrive. The bigger the project, the more jobs we’d create.
The material suppliers we use locally will also be showcased in regional, national and international events and platforms to give them opportunities to expand and supply to building projects globally.
Describe to us your dream African city
A city that is totally sustainable in terms of its infrastructure, water supply, energy sources and other systems like waste management. A city that is all run efficiently and sustainably with a very low impact on the environment. A city that can keep its social fabric but accommodate the demand for new infrastructure. This is my dream African city, and we will build a few and hopefully inspire others to do the same.