Because how we build affects how we live

We are introducing new concepts in building design and construction utilizing locally available materials and appropriate technologies to improve people's health and safety and create vital and vibrant living environments. The Rural Shelter Improvement Program will:

  • Improve the skills and knowledge of local tradesmen through training programs
  • Introduce appropriate construction technologies
  • Improve the quality of locally sourced building materials
  • Advise local builders in the design of new buildings and the retrofit of existing ones
  • Utilize the Same Polytechnic College School of Building Science and Construction Technology’s learn-by-doing approach to benefit the local populace through community service construction projects

The Status Quo

In rural East Africa, the majority of families live in inadequate, overcrowded, windowless houses with only one room. These structures consist of basic wooden frames covered with mud, with thatch roofs above and bare earth floors below. They expose families to a multitude of health and safety risks: ticks and insects concealed in unfinished mud walls and earthen floors, vermin and snakes in the thatch, parasites seeking human hosts and malarial mosquitos entering through unscreened windows and doorways. Most families either share or have no access to a latrine, significantly increasing the risk of diseases such as dysentery, diarrhea, and typhoid fever.

These types of rural houses require a tremendous amount of maintenance, and entire walls often collapse during the rainy season. Their average lifespan is estimated at seven to eight years.

 Masai children playing in their family home

Masai children playing in their family home

These houses are also vulnerable to the earthquakes that occur in the region thanks to the seismically active East Africa Rift System, one of the continent’s key tectonic features. The constant dangers to human life and widespread destruction of property that these disasters alone produce are compelling reasons for according top priority to shelter improvement in this region.

Quality of life

Poverty is the state of material deprivation with respect to a number of basic needs, including shelter. Thus, provision or improvement of rural shelter contributes to qualitative and quantitative improvements in one major dimension of rural poverty. It is well known that shelter improvement also results in the improvement of health and safety in the event of natural disasters, an important dimension of rural poverty. Primary health care improvements must necessarily include improvements in some aspects of shelter, particularly water and sanitation facilities.

 Clay bricks cut from the ground and stacked in preparation to be fired

Clay bricks cut from the ground and stacked in preparation to be fired

Economic impact

It should be emphasized that shelter provides the physical context or location for a wide variety of income-generation activities, including agriculture and cottage industry. Consequently, shelter improvement constitutes one of the essential preconditions for rural income-generation activities.

For the majority of rural inhabitants, in the absence of official assistance programs, improved shelter is an end result of improved income from other production activities, particularly agriculture. This natural sequence of rural improvement can be deliberately harnessed within shelter improvement projects and programs. For example, in addition to the shelter component, projects can include the simultaneous introduction of income-generating assets such as poultry yards and vegetable gardens, as well as improvements in local communication and marketing facilities. These non-shelter activities can improve the capacity of shelter project beneficiaries to service housing loans, afford the costs of maintenance and repairs and, in time, undertake further shelter improvements.

Implementing shelter projects within the context of programs aimed at increasing income-generation capacity is the only way to guarantee sustainable rural shelter improvement. This broader approach to housing improvement can significantly contribute to general rural poverty reduction. It also provides a strong rationale for collaboration between agencies concerned with shelter and those concerned with rural production activities.

In the context of survival strategies employed by the rural poor, construction and the production of building materials already play a role in poverty reduction. Data from several studies indicate the quantitative significance of construction activities in rural nonagricultural employment in a number of countries. Construction accounted for 14% of rural nonfarm employment in India, 12% in Zambia, and 2% in Sierra Leone. The individuals or families involved supplement their agricultural earnings through the production of building materials for sale; the construction of houses, latrines, schools, and health facilities; and the sinking of water wells and boreholes. Thus, shelter provision programs and projects can build upon existing phenomena to generate additional non-agricultural employment — again contributing to the ultimate goal of reducing rural poverty.

It should be emphasized that shelter provides the physical context or location for a wide variety of income-generation activities, including agriculture and cottage industry. Consequently, shelter improvement constitutes one of the essential preconditions for rural income-generation activities.

For the majority of rural inhabitants, in the absence of official assistance programs, improved shelter is an end result of improved income from other production activities, particularly agriculture. This natural sequence of rural improvement can be deliberately harnessed within shelter improvement projects and programs. For example, in addition to the shelter component, projects can include the simultaneous introduction of income-generating assets such as poultry yards and vegetable gardens, as well as improvements in local communication and marketing facilities. These non-shelter activities can improve the capacity of shelter project beneficiaries to service housing loans, afford the costs of maintenance and repairs and, in time, undertake further shelter improvements.

Implementing shelter projects within the context of programs aimed at increasing income-generation capacity is the only way to guarantee sustainable rural shelter improvement. This broader approach to housing improvement can significantly contribute to general rural poverty reduction. It also provides a strong rationale for collaboration between agencies concerned with shelter and those concerned with rural production activities.

In the context of survival strategies employed by the rural poor, construction and the production of building materials already play a role in poverty reduction. Data from several studies indicate the quantitative significance of construction activities in rural nonagricultural employment in a number of countries. Construction accounted for 14% of rural nonfarm employment in India, 12% in Zambia, and 2% in Sierra Leone. The individuals or families involved supplement their agricultural earnings through the production of building materials for sale; the construction of houses, latrines, schools, and health facilities; and the sinking of water wells and boreholes. Thus, shelter provision programs and projects can build upon existing phenomena to generate additional non-agricultural employment — again contributing to the ultimate goal of reducing rural poverty.