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Houses are under construction in Kenya. Photo by Naila Jinnah / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)


September 6, 2017

The Worldwide Elusive Search for Affordable Housing

contributor: Esther Obonyo

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun” – Ecclesiastes 1:9 New International Version (NIV).

In the 1990s, I was drawn to the Building Economics (Quantity Surveying) undergraduate major at the University of Nairobi (UON) because of its cross-disciplinary nature (see Mulligan, 1993). The program integrated architectural design with building engineering and financial issues. From my first class, I was very fascinated by building technology. That interest remains strong close to two decades after completing my undergraduate major. As a professor of construction management, I research pathways for scaling the use of sustainable structural materials to create affordable building systems.

Transformational use of sustainable building materials would result in significant financial benefits, reducing construction costs while enhancing the use of scarce materials.

Why do I focus on building materials? Because the innovative design and synthesis of transformational building materials can significantly advance efforts directed at catalyzing economic development at the regional scale through narrowing the global infrastructure gap (World Economic Forum, 2016). Building materials account for one-third of the total cost of construction. Thus, transformational use of sustainable building materials would result in significant financial benefits by reducing construction costs while also enhancing the optimal use of scarce materials in more sustainable and durable building systems. There is a broad scope for attaining these ecological and money-related performance targets through novel and innovative use of building materials. These range from incremental improvements regarding traditional materials and existing characteristics, to syntheses of new material combinations with additional multi-functional characteristics, to radical innovations in materials with entirely new functionalities (World Economic Forum, 2016). These vast opportunities for innovation have attracted a lot of attention from researchers across the globe. This notwithstanding, the existing market-ready building materials cannot be deployed easily in a low-income context at scales matching the existing needs.

Across the globe, an estimated 330 million urban residents occupy housing units that are either structurally substandard or financially unsustainable (McKinsey Global Institute, 2014). At least 60 million households in the United States, the European Union, Japan, and Australia spend a disproportionately large part of their income on housing costs. The National Low Income Housing Coalition estimates that, at a federally mandated rate of $7.25, minimum wage renters in the US need to work between 94.5 and 117 hours per week to afford modest one- and two-bedroom and one-bedroom homes respectively. (The numbers rely on the Fair Market Rent). Along the same lines, the global housing affordability gap is valued at $650 billion per year, which is 1 percent of global GDP.  In Sub Saharan Africa the affordability gap in urban housing is more than 10 percent of the local GDP (McKinsey Global Institute, 2014). Moreover, more than 51 percent of urban residents are inadequately housed (Shelter Afrique, 2014). Projections by agencies such as the United Nations indicate that 50 million people migrate to urban areas across the globe each year. By 2025, the cumulative demand for new housing will exceed 1 billion, costing between $9 and $11 trillion. Clearly, provision of adequate and affordable housing will remain daunting if we continue relying on current construction designs and building systems (Habitat III, 2015).

By 2025, the cumulative demand for new housing will exceed 1 billion, costing between $9 and $11 trillion.

As I reflect on the cumulative knowledge obtained since I took on a second hat of being a US-based Global North player in 2005, I see the model of engaging with actors and players in the Global South as a grossly underestimated barrier to scale. Delivering adequate, affordable housing by focusing on novel building materials has progressed slowly because of the duplicative nature of interactions between Global North players and our Global South counterparts. Most development-oriented discourse emphasizes the importance of defining the problem and understanding the context. However, I have observed that, in practice, this imperative often translates to the presumption that someone from the Global North must capture and/or document the problem and the context before any action can be undertaken. The people in the Global South know their problems. They also know the context inside out. Details pertaining to how they experience their problems and what is unique about each context is something that they can and should bring to the table. In many of our efforts, we fail to embrace the local people as equal partners and co-creators. Instead, we turn them into our “human subjects.” We should not study the local people; we should adopt a humble demeanor, which lends itself easily to building mutually beneficial relationships that are required to address our most pressing societal problems in conjunction with them.

In many of our efforts, we fail to embrace the local people as equal partners and co-creators. Instead, we turn them into our “human subjects.”

Do we simply want to reproduce a familiar resource pool comprised of 10 people with 10 years of similar experiences? Or, do we instead want to more productively connect 10 distinctive people who collectively bring 100 years’ worth of diverse experiences? Catalyzing progress in the realm of transformative impact on day one calls for truly collaborative projects. Under the first “business model,” every single time we have a new entrant, the rest of team’s progress stalls as the newcomer embarks on foundational work building knowledge of the problem and its context. The missed opportunity is best exemplified in the quest for Affordable Housing in Kenya. The problems and their respective contexts, as well as detailed accounts of place history, including what has been done, what worked and what did not work has already been captured in HABRI, a library dedicated to low cost construction approaches. Better still, many of the experts who worked in this area between the 1970s and 1990s are still around. This work advanced beyond technology-driven approaches. For example, the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Development Study has conducted invaluable research on housing adequacy and affordability in independent Kenya. Moreover, some of the students graduating from the local universities each year publish thesis and dissertation projects investigating the challenge of affordable housing.

Even if we (the Global North players) succeed in capturing all the relevant knowledge, without recourse to local expertise, we will end up with an information overload problem. The first order of business should not be “what do you know?” but “who do you know?” The initial focus should be on building meaningful relationships with local people who have influence and authority in what they do on a day-to-day basis. In this connection, one of my main collaborators in East Africa recently demonstrated the power of his social capital. For agenda-setting deliberations, we requested him to help our team populate a room with a group of 25-30 diverse professionals playing various roles in different types of organizations. Two weeks after we approached him with our request, we held a very successful event in which the local experts with senior leadership responsibilities in different types of public and private organizations served as facilitators for the deliberations. During the final plenary session, they provided a comprehensive list of all the resources that were available locally. They also outlined specific opportunities for engaging in large-scale programs in collaboration with both the government and the universities.

The first order of business should not be “what do you know?” but “who do you know?” The initial focus should be on building meaningful relationships with local people who have influence.

My collaborator’s UON career spans three decades. He also works as a consultant, contributing to high-level policy setting deliberations. As well, he is a community leader actively involved in many projects both at the national and local community level. In short, he occupies a unique position within a complex social network. No amount of ethno-graphic surveys or any other data collection techniques could ever adequately capture the full extent of his social capital. There are many others like him. “Who they know” rather than “what they know” is more valuable to making an impact at scale. Even if such people were to introduce us to all the people in each respective social network, winning essential trust would take inordinate time; and that is if it is accomplished at all. If we are to move the needle with respect to delivering adequate houses at more affordable prices, we must be intentional and purposeful in building relationships with a small group of respected local leaders who can play a pivotal role through leveraging their social capital.

It is better to start with the assumption that someone somewhere has already done what you are trying to do.

In “Learning to Fly; Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations,” Collison and Parcell detail how transformative organizations achieve meaningful large-scale impact by leveraging the power of relationships with the right people (2004). One of the authors (Parcell) draws part of his contribution from his experience of working with UN AIDS in Uganda during the time when the HIV/AIDS problem was the country’s biggest health crisis. In the book, Collison and Parcell (2004) point out that it is better to “start with the assumption that someone somewhere has already done what you are trying to do.” Granted, some of the completed projects may not have succeeded, but at the very least having an appreciation of what was learnt will help us break the pattern of going around in circles, re-doing what has already been done by those who are best placed to describe both the problem and the context.


Collison, C. and Geoff Parcell, G.(2004), Learning to Fly: Practical Knowledge Management from Leading and Learning Organizations, 2nd Edition, ISBN: 978-1-84112-509-1, Capstone, Chichester, West Sussex. UK.

Habitat III, 2015, Habitat III Issue Paper, 20 – Housing

McKinsey Global Institute (2014) A Blueprint for Addressing the Global Affordable Housing Challenge, McKinsey & Company

Mulligan, M. (1993), Building Economics: The Use of Economics in the Built Environment, Student Economic Review Vol. 7 (pdf)

World Economic Forum (2016), Shaping the Future of Construction – A Landscape in Transformation: An Introduction; Prepared in Collaboration with the Boston Consulting Group (pdf)

Shelter Afrique, 2014, The African Rental Housing Conference – Whitepaper, Monday December 8th, 2014

tags : emergency shelter, extreme affordability, housing, materials

Esther Obonyo

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