Designing and Building in Central and East Africa


… Back to the Blogosphere

After four years of living in East Africa and a total of six years of dedicated professional focus towards issues pertaining to design, development and construction within the East African context, I’ve recently taken some time off to allow me to recharge my batteries and spend some time with family and friends.

As many of the subscribers to this blog may have noticed, I have not published much of anything over the past two years. Apologies to all.  This pause was a result of my work over the past few years being thoroughly consuming; requiring me to write and publish for my teams and organizations through alternative outlets.  Now with some time to reflect, I will be able to re-post and analyze much of the work that I contributed to over the past few years. Many of these articles and book chapters have been published within the East African community though have rarely found their way to western audiences.  It is my hope that presenting them here will bring more attention to current and future efforts that are helping to shape the region.

… So I am now officially back to the Blogosphere!  The first article shall pop up within the coming week.

Looking forward to sharing – and many thanks for continuing to follow!

  • Charles (Afritekt Admin/Author)

How To Start A Project In Kibera

Having worked with numerous NGOs ranging from the smallest (of only one or two volunteers) to one of largest (with thousands of full time staff), I have grown to question the strategies with which development projects are initiated.  Over time I grew frustrated that so much of the initiative rested with the donor or service provider – and communities dissolved into simple recipients.

At the small end, projects are often begin through international friendships.  These are either through expats in the west seeking funding opportunities for their village back home, or someone in the tourism industry that befriends a traveler.  These friendships spawn a non-profit that is often dedicated to a single community or project.  While work gets done and progress is sometimes made, the individuals who initiate the project and those who fund it often do not have the expertise needed to make strategic decisions that foster further discussion, development and progress.

On the other end of the spectrum, the largest NGOs have only the best and informed goals in mind. With a well organized staff of individuals that have dedicated their lives to such work, these organizations have the resources and ability to target projects that contribute to larger macro-solutions. However, with massive budgets and constrained timelines, these expansive initiatives must often focus more on numbers of affected beneficiaries and dollars spent per month than on the diversity of challenges posed by each different community. This translates most simply to: get started, get building, get spending. As a result, the selection process of communities can be done while looking over a large map – hardly enough information to understand a community’s needs and capacity for development.

I reached a point last year where I was ready to quit working for these “others” whose strategies I did not agree with. I was ready to start something of my own: an organization that takes the time needed to do things right, allocates significant budgets (with flexible timelines) to important initiatives, and – most importantly – provides services and programs for which a community group would have to apply. Such an application process would force communities to self reflect, substantiate their needs, and propose self-authored solutions. I outlined many of these thoughts in an article published in 2010 on Engineering For Change titled “How to Write a Proposal For Work in Your Community”.

It was right at this time that I found myself in an interview with Kounkuey Design Initiative. KDI seemed to be developing a strategy that merged all of my proposed strategies and were working to perfect many of them. I signed on, and just this past week finalized my first call for project proposals throughout Kibera, the largest urban slum in East Africa.

This is how development projects should start.

RFP poster advertises information sessions about how to apply for a development project.

RFP poster advertises information sessions about how to apply for a development project.

The process begins with hundreds of posters distributed throughout the targeted area. These are at first concentrated around high profile (chief’s offices, district commissioner compounds) and high traffic areas (neighborhood entrances and markets). Posters are then placed around sites with development potential, and finally in quieter, residential zones. Care must be taken to publish the information in all languages (in this case English and Kiswahili), and to post the fliers in all neighborhoods. This ensures that all residents have equal opportunity to apply. The posters themselves (right) advertise information sessions that are held on different days in large public spaces. During these events, questions are answered and applications distributed.

KDI RFP info meeting

KDI RFP Information Meeting

The application itself seeks to reveal the potential of the proposed project as well as any flaws. It begins with basic questions about the Community Based Organization (CBO) such as “How many members do you have” or “Who controls the site referenced in your proposal”.  These questions provide valuable information as to the capacity of the group and the feasibility of the project. The following questions ask the authoring group to reflect upon the organization’s history of community and NGO engagement. What lessons has the community group learned? (What has it not learned?) Finally, the group has to articulate its vision for the proposed project. With no restrictions as to what the project could be, the community is free to propose a sanitation facility, flood water control, an urban garden, an Internet cafe – anything. These questions and answers provide our team with the needed data and valuable perspective as we move into the selection process.

After the one month window for submissions has closed, our team reviews each submission independently (the last RFP solicited over 30 applications).  This then graduates to community site visits, interviews, and meetings with area residents and chiefs.  This interview and selection process can last anywhere from one to three months.  It is only when site boundaries are confirmed, and the CBO, area residents and local leaders are all consulted, that an MOU is signed and design meetings begin.

This kind of competitive process is one of the best ways that and NGO can ensure that whatever project it begins is in line with community needs and desires; while also contributing to the larger macro goals of the NGO.  It also ensures that if the project’s program evolves throughout the design process, solid leadership and management exist within the CBO to organize and refocus the strengths of the community.  Moreover, such an application process moves a community group from beneficiaries to active participants in – and authors of – the entire initiative.

The deadline for this round of submissions is the 24th of February at 5pm.  I’m looking forward to posting an update once the selection process is complete!

Corruption Can Buy You Dinner.

…. and development is one of the best places to eat.

For anyone working in development, construction can be the phase most vulnerable to corruption.  A construction project is a complex purchase that leaves many opportunities to “eat.” Such corruption, unfortunately, is particularly prevalent in Africa.   Where there is daily hunger, money earmarked for construction becomes an enormous temptation to all involved in the process.  Although development brings long term benefits, immediate need can drive contractors, community leaders, and developers to siphon off funds for pressing personal needs.

Having prepared construction documents, budgets and contracts for over 100 schools, 30 water systems, 25 health centers and numerous other public projects in Central and East Africa, I have authorized and overseen payments totaling over $4,000,000 for construction costs.  Corruption can come in many forms and at many places along the way.  It is the construction manager’s responsibility to be aware of and to seal the cracks through which dollars, francs and shillings fall.

Here are ten common opportunities for corruption that can sink a construction project:

10. Coordinating Prices.  As building contractors or material distributors prepare their proposals for a potential project, it is not uncommon for them to be aware of their competitors’ bids.  It’s not difficult to turn a competitor into a conspirator by coordinating submissions.  One contractor will drastically overbid a project, while another will do so only slightly.    This consumes money that would typically be used for change orders and improvements to the design.  Moreover, it destroys the trust upon which a competitive free market system is built.

09. Shorting Materials.  For a construction model in which materials are purchased directly from a distributor, “adjustable” quantities of sand, stone, and gravel often create a wonderful opportunity to eat.  These materials are difficult to measure, especially once they have already been dumped on site.  A truckload might be sold as an eight cubic meter delivery – but only filling the truck 90% of capacity is an easy way to “shave a bit off the top.”  This method can also apply to bricks.  Smaller bricks cost less.  If a load of bricks arrives and the dimensions are off only by a centimeter or two, the load will not be sufficient to complete the project and money will be lost.

08. Shorting Mixtures.  Shorting concrete and mortar mixtures is extremely common.  With cement being the most expensive building material, mixing a ratio of 1:4 instead of 1:3 can produce extra bags that can then be sold at the end of the project.  This leads to weaker construction that brings the life of the building into question.  It must also be noted that in seismically active sites, diluted concrete mixtures can result in dangerous structures.

These problems can be solved with proper oversight and negotiations.  They are, however, one-sided. Corruption becomes more difficult to identify and eliminate when parties begin to coordinate across contract lines.

07. Community Overpays – Intentionally. When the community has a grant but does not have direct access to the money, community leaders can award the contract to the supplier on the condition that they are paid a small kickback for the overpriced materials.  Both sides benefit from the arrangement; the construction project suffers.

06. Awarding Labor to Elites.  It is always best to hire local labor.  This brings much needed salaries into the community and can help stimulate the local economy.  Local contractors however must retain the authority to choose which skilled labor they employ.  This ensures that the project is completed on time and to the highest standard.  When a salary is awarded to one who is not qualified, it can undermine the drive of those who have needed skills. (In diverse regions this is sometimes caused by tribalism.)  These talented masons and artisans may then be pushed toward considering other, less legal ways to gain employment.

These scenarios are beyond difficult, because it is the people who will directly benefit from the project who begin to prevent its successful completion. In these situations, firm conversations should be held between all parties to review the community’s ultimate goals for long term development.

Corruption problems are multiplied when leaks from an NGO’S own staff are thrown into the mix.  As professionals who oversee the design and budget of the project, corruption at this level can completely discredit the project and the community’s trust in the development effort.

05. Selling Information.  A project’s construction cost estimate is sensitive information.  An architect or engineer works to prepare a project that is tailored to construction costs and will arrive within budget.  In the event that these estimates are leaked to a contractor, the level playing field needed to create competition is destroyed.  If a project is estimated at $10,000 for example, eyebrows should be raised if a proposal arrives at $9,999.

04. Paying to Submit a Project.  This method is the simplest way to make a few dollars.  “Sorry, it costs $5 for me to accept your proposal.”  If a bribe arrives this early in the process, it can be assured that more bribery will occur during the project.

03. Falsifying Progress.  Contractors are paid after having achieved certain predetermined benchmarks of construction.   Progress must be measured accurately, because exaggerating the amount of work completed is a fast track to fill one’s pockets.  This of course will make completing the project that much more difficult as funds will dry up before the end of the project.  Responsible and informed staff understand that approving a payment for a few dollars without proof of accomplishment could end up costing much more in headaches during the months to come.

02. Falsifying Material Quantities.  As mentioned above, materials such as sand and gravel are easy to short.  In the event that your staff member determines that only 95% of the contracted quantity was fulfilled upon delivery, the staff member can decide whether to approve thousands of dollars of materials – or not.  Bribing a staff member bleeds rescources from the project – though buying a signature may be cheaper than another delivery for the distributor to fulfill the contract.

01. Conflicting Interests. Conflict of interest is by far the worst-case scenario.  If someone working for your development organization has a financial interest in an outside contractor involved in the project (perhaps through family relationships), this conflict can undermine the entire construction and development effort.  It can further discredit an organization and prevent it from bringing further development to where it is needed most.

These 10 points do not encompass all of the potential traps involved in small or large scale construction.  Property title issues and corrupt government officials can substantially complicate or even stop a project in its tracks.  Where corruption is present, development and investment plummets, thereby exacerbating an already needy situation.

I recently read a Facebook post arguing that Africa’s biggest problem was not simply poverty, disease or access to education, but rather “a failure to harness our potential.”  I couldn’t agree more.  However, the post did not site reasons for such failure. Corruption  must be considered as one of Africa’s biggest problems.  It prevents capable, inspired citizens from moving their communities forward.

It eats.

And it chokes.

If You Plan to Build 100 Schools in Congo

.                within a limited time, you have to be efficient.

This means one needs a standard design prepared with an even more standardized system that allows small adjustments to be made for each project.

Having broken ground on more than 100 schools over the last year, my strategy for creating project construction documents has evolved.  In the beginning, I created all of the standard drawings for classrooms (in blocks of 3, 4, 5, and 6) and latrines.  Below you can see an example set for a block of three classrooms.  The brick + cast in place concrete + corrugated roof panel scheme is typical of rural East African architecture.  All dimensions conform to the Congolese Ministry of Education standards (which sometimes differ between provinces) and provide seating for approximately 30 students per classroom.

In the beginning, I would adjust each drawing set to cater the communities’ needs.  Some would want water catchment; some a ceiling, or a different type of flooring.  My first few sets of documents were consumed in these details – as I represented each variation visually.  It became clear by my 15th school however, that the number of projects and their pressing deadlines would not permit such attention to detail.  I have therefore begun using this single set of drawings and directing the contractor to the budget.  This allows us the control all construction details through contractual language and the material quantities that arrive on site.

Below is a Bill Of Quantities that we use to build the most common school unit of 3 classrooms, 2 latrines and a water capture system.  In this variation, the foundations have been budgeted as stone masonry which frames the cheapest flooring option: compacted soil topped with a brick pavers and a pure cement finish.  Quantities for bricks, sand and gravel vary according to material quality and brick dimensions – and have been slightly increased to ensure sufficient quantities.  (It should also be noted that all local materials here can be decreased in the event that the community has access to such materials and can contribute them to the building effort.)  Tools and measuring instruments should also be factored into project costs, as their quality usually limits them to a “one project” life span.  In all, a project of this scope (in the accessible regions of South Kivu) will cost less than $22,800 and take about 3 months to build.

Material Unit Quantity
1 Sand m3 46
2 Gravel m3 9
3 Masonry Stones m3 21
4 Bricks pce 40000
5 Scaffolding Posts (± 5m each) pce 60
6 Scaffolding Boards pce 6
7 Ciment sac 230
8 Ventilation Blocks pce 108
9 Formwork Wood (3.5m ea.) pce 35
10 “2×4” Wood  (3.5m ea.) pce 94
11 “2×2” wood perlins (3.5m ea.) pce 75
12 Fascia Board 25cm wide, 3.75m long pce 18
13 Shovel pce 5
14 Pick pce 3
15 Hoe pce 2
16 Machette pce 1
17 Trowel pce 2
18 Spirit Level pce 1
19 Wheel Barrow pce 2
20 Digging Bar pce 1
21 Measuring Tape, 50m pce 1
22 Measuring Tape, 5m pce 1
23 Mason Hammer, 5 kg pce 2
24 Mason Hammer, 1 kg pce 1
25 Mason Bucket pce 4
26 Wheel Barrow pce 1
27 Carpenter Hammer pce 2
28 Mason Square pce 1
29 Crow Bar pce 1
30 Hacksaw pce 1
31 Hacksaw blade pce 10
32 Scissors (Tin Shears) pce 1
33 Large Tarp pce 2
34 Paint Roller pce 6
35 Brush, 3″ pce 4
36 Brush, 4″ pce 6
37 Sand Paper ml 2
38 20 Liter Bucket pce 6
39 Large Sand Sieve (5mm) m2 1
40 Fine Sand Sieve (2mm) m2 1
41 Deisel Fuel litre 10
42 12mm String (100m Roll) pce 1
43 Nylon String  (100m Roll) pce 2
44 Rebar HA6 (12m ea.) pce 52
45 Rebar HA8 (12m ea.) pce 42
46 Galvanized Tie Wire kg 15
47 Galvanized Roof Panel (G30) pce 103
48 Galvanized Roof Crown pce 15
49 Roofing Nails kg 15
50 15mm Nails kg 10
51 12mm Nails kg 18
52 10mm Nails kg 10
53 8mm Nails kg 10
54 5mm Nails kg 6
55 PVC Gutter ml 44
56 Gutter Ends pce 4
57 Gutter/PVC connection pce 2
58 Gutter Brackets pce 26
59 PVC 110mm ml 15
60 PVC 110mm Elbow pce 3
61 PVC 110mm “T” pce 3
62 PVC Glue tube 2
63 Plastic Water Tank (2m3) pce 1
64 1/2″ Tap pce 1
65 Complete Wood Door 0.8×2.10 pce 2
66 Complete Wood Door 0.9×2.10 pce 3
67 Complete Wood Window (150×110) pce 6
68 Complete Wood Window (200×110) pce 6
69 Chalk / Lime (50 kg) sac 3
70 Latex Paint litre 45
71 Oil Paint litre 26
72 Chalkboard Paint litre 3
73 Kitchen Salt kg 6
74 Student Desk pce 45
75 Teacher Desk pce 1
76 Teacher Chair pce 1

I provide these details not to help you understand what a good three room school building will cost – or how to build such a building.  There are numerous beneficial details that are missing from this example. Rather, I present it here to show what a team of locally trained masons could be expecting to build.  It could also be assumed that a rural community would enjoy seeing such an example built for their school.

I welcome you to use this information as a reference point for your own designs.  Any improvements to this scheme could drive the project cost up – but in my view, any and all considerations taken towards appropriate, contextual design can have lasting positive affects towards the sustained development of your community.

The next step, of course, is the how.  Material procurement, appropriate construction methods, conflict, and corruption present the most formidable challenges to project completion.  … But perhaps that will be left to a follow up post…

Happy building!

Building a Butterfly

The decent down to Mwenga Centre

The descent along Route 2 to Mwenga Centre

Mwenga Centre is one our most remote outposts.  A six- to eight-hour drive to the south west of Bukavu, Mwenga is surrounded by dense forests and impressive mountain ranges beyond.  The modest town center is home to approximately 5,000 people with a handful of shops and restaurants along the main Route Nationale 2.   Two of our Tuungane communities, both named Kalole (neighborhoods of Mwenga Centre), participated in the governance program and determined that they both would like to use their grants to build a large market in their town center.

When this project landed on my desk in July of 2012, I realized that not only did we have a beautiful and prominent site, but with a budget of $45,600, we would be able to do something special.  I spent a Saturday preparing a modified set of drawings of our standard market design.  I found myself drawing an inverted roof with a descending king post to support the center of the structure.  I also took the time to clearly lay out the dimensions of the needed trusses – labeling truss type “A” and truss type “B”.

Drawing: Diagram showing truss locations

Market “Option 2”

I sent the plans down with my technician the following Monday along with a copy of the standard roof designs – and asked for the community to review both before choosing one.

About 10 days later, word came back: “They loved it!… But they decided that they would rather have two market structures than one market with a unique roof.”

A roller coaster of a response, but – in adherence to the Tuungane principals – the client is always right. The contract was prepared and as it came across my desk, I noted that the drawings included in the document were that of the typical pitched roof.  Another slight heartbreak – but gave my signature and moved on.

C:Documents and SettingsCharles.NewmanMy DocumentsProjects3

Standard Market Design

Over the next few months I heard the occasional updates and signed off on payments.

“Foundations complete.”

“Columns in place.”

Fast forward to December 2012 – and I received these pictures:

I was ecstatic to see that the community had built the structure almost exactly according to my “second option” drawings.  I was surprised because I only printed the drawings once – never to have seen them again.  The contractor must have held on to these documents with the intention of following them…

Now, first off, I had to have a solid conversation with my team.  I should have been informed that the community had planned to proceed with the inverted option the moment the trusses were being constructed.  Had I been informed, I might have insisted, for example, on a certain connection detail between the reinforced concrete beams and the wood super structure.    Looking at these photos my first thought (and perhaps yours too) is the threat of wind.  This region is not prone to large gusts of wind and the site is also flanked by structures on either side – but precautions must be taken to ensure the structural stability of the roof against lateral winds.

My staff is currently working to prepare an amendment to the contract for the addition of protective panels along the sides of both buildings.  This is an unfortunate need but a positive development.  These panels will be perforated to minimize pressure on both the side panels as well as the underside of the primary roof – which will come at a cost.  However, these perforations will be an opportunity to add decorative patterns along the sides of the buildings.

Regardless of these complications – the community is over the top with pride about the beauty of their unique market.  Located in the town center, it overlooks the main road and has earned the nickname “Le Papillon” – The Butterfly.

Burundian Splatter Plaster

Descending from Rwanda's 1000 hillsOn the road from Rwanda to Burundi, the rolling hills dissipate into the long, flat, straight road towards Bujumbura.  The temperature rises, and the mountains of Congo drift away into the distance.  The scenic drive is complimented by the small villages along the way – and the beauty of their architecture.

Almost all of the buildings are made of the same mud brick construction methods and topped with “iron” sheets or thatch.  What sets each home apart from the next though, is the paint – or perhaps more appropriately, the waterproofing.

Calcium Oxide, usually referred to as lime, is a building material used throughout East Africa and is often mixed into cement mortars and plasters to improve water resistance.  When used independently, mixed to 1 part lime : 3 parts sand, “lime only” mortar still retains cementitious qualities at a fraction of the cost of cement mortar.

Home owners in the North West of Burundi have incorporated lime’s qualities into their architecture using a unique method: splatter plaster.  A concentrated mixture of lime + water is applied to the exterior surface of the mud brick construction.  While the most appropriate location for this application would be at the base of the building (most exposed to rain), Burundians have turned this effective waterproofing material into an opportunity for decoration.  Splattered, splotched, dabbed or washed – each building presents a different method, a different design, a different home.

I honestly wish I had more pictures to post here.   Every house along the two hour drive is unique; assembling a collection of architecture that I have not yet seen in other parts of Africa.

One can imagine that for public infrastructure (schools, clinics, markets), such a method could be employed to create a truly contextual design.

. . . . . . . . . . .  What will really get you thinking is the introduction of colored chalks into the mixtures!

The Loita Learning Center – Up and Running

I am happy to report that one year later the Loita Learning Center in Kenya’s Maasai land is up and running with solar panels, a massive dish, and working internet!   The project was organized by Under The Acacia and the administration of the Loita Hills Academy.  A great summary of the project was recently posted on the Internet Society’s blog, written by UTA chief strategist, Dylan Mahalingham.

The beauty of the center was made possible by the people of Loita Hills.

For a complete summary of the design process, I send you to one of my earlier posts: 15,000 Bottle Caps For Africa.


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