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Innovation at the service of community projects in Africa

Yoel Mukalay

Africa's rich architectural heritage is reflected in its ancient architecture, which has served African societies in various ways throughout history. However, the continent is also home to breathtaking sustainable designs, incorporating local culture and materials. Innovative architecture is being implemented throughout Africa to provide immediate solutions to communities, such as education, health, and water. For example, the "Women's Opportunity Centre" in Rwanda empowers women by reviving a lost Rwandan design tradition with circular forms. Education is also a key focus, with architects using traditional building techniques with modern engineering methods to create more structurally robust structures. The HIkma religious and secular complex in Niger uses Compressed Earth Bricks (CEB) made with laterite soil for a culture and education hub. Health is another area where innovative architecture is being implemented. The Emergency NGO Children's Surgical Hospital in Lake Victoria uses resources from earth, water, and the sun, with a photovoltaic roof that provides shade and uncovered walkways.

The African continent is human to the human race and civilization, a civilization reflected in its ancient architecture. From the Pyradis in Egypt to the Nubian pyramids at Meroe to The ruin of the temple at Yeha, Ethiopia. Architecture has served African societies in multiple ways throughout history. In recent years, Africa is well known and depicted mainly on the humanitarian side by the mainstream media, blurring the rich architectural heritage the continent has brought to the world. However; the continent is home to breathtaking sustainable designs. The uniqueness of some buildings currently designed in Africa by various local as well as foreign architects, is the sustainable aspect of the building and the impact they have on local communities.

Challenges Africa presents vary from a climate with an intense hit to acquiring necessary materials, yet the know-how of some remarkable architects have helped to design sustainable buildings which do respond directly to the local climate, the site, and make usage of local materials in including the local culture in the design. Taking inspiration and re-interpreting traditional and ancient local architecture, with contemporary methods and structure, the innovative architecture being implemented throughout the continent is providing immediate solutions to communities in Africa with easy access to basic services, such as education, health, water.

“Empower local communities…” 

To illustrate the impact of the innovative architecture has on local women communities, the “Women’s Opportunity Centre’’ was designed by Sharon Davis Design, located in Katonza, Rwanda to empower one small community of women that dedicate their days to small subsistence farms, fetching freshwater, and scavenging wood for fuel. In the architect’s words, the design “revives a lost Rwandan design tradition with deep spatial and social layers. Its circular forms radiate outward, from intimate classrooms at the center of the site to a community space, farmer’s market, and the civic realm beyond. 

Women’s Opportunity Center_administration_buildings_2013_© Elizabeth Felicella

The center’s circular structures are modeled after the historic King’s Palace in southern Rwanda, whose woven-reed dwellings were part of an indigenous tradition that the region had all but lost. The design draws on the delicacy of this vernacular Rwandan construction method with rounded, perforated brick walls that allow for passive cooling and solar shading, while maintaining a sense of privacy. Architects, in partnership with local companies, have been able to create water purification, biogas, and other sustainable systems that can be produced and maintained by the locals themselves.

“Education for everyone…”

The innovative architecture has not left behind the importance of education. On education, Nelson Mandela could say “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”. The parallel between what Mandela said and the poverty of many communities in Africa brings about crucial questions, such as how can architecture truly modify places and give children schools better conditions? Is it possible to give an architectural answer to very poor societies around the African Continent? Architects need to think about using architecture as a tool, even in places that lack money and building technologies, and Diébédo Francis Kéré is doing exactly that in Africa. 

Primary School in Gando_perspective_2001_© Siméon Duchoud

In his home country, Burkina Faso, Diébédo Francis Kéré designed a primary school in Gando, in 2001, with a design reflecting an architectural style that combines traditional building techniques with modern engineering methods. 

The design for the Primary School has developed from a lengthy list of parameters including cost, climate, resource availability, and construction feasibility. In order to maximize results with the minimal resources available, a clay/mud hybrid construction was primarily used.

These traditional clay-building techniques were modified and modernized in order to create a more structurally robust construction in the form of bricks. The clay bricks have the added advantage of being cheap, easy to produce, and also provide thermal protection against the hot climate. The roof of the Primary School has been pulled away from the learning space of the interior though, and a perforated clay ceiling with ample ventilation was introduced. This dry-stacked brick ceiling allows for maximum ventilation, pulling cool air in from the interior windows and releasing hot air out through the perforated ceiling. 


In turn, the ecological footprint of the school is vastly reduced by alleviating the need for air-conditioning. The contribution of the entire community to build the school has been a step in the future with more possibilities, both for those who now have a decent building in which to learn (the school) and for those who now know how to build this building.

“Architecture for culture and religion…”

One of the well-known aspects of Africa is its religious diversity. Religious facilities can be used for more than spiritual purposes, but rather to pursue knowledge alongside religious practice. One living example is the HIkma, religious and secular complex. Designed by atelier Masomi + studio Chahar, the building complex is located Masomi in Dandaji, a village in the arid Western Niger with a young population of around 3000. 

HIKMA - A Religious and Secular Complex_Facade_2018_© James Wang

The project is a culture and education hub where the secular and religious peacefully coexist to cultivate minds and strengthen the community. The new library provides books, a computer lab, and quiet study spaces to improve reading and vocabulary skills for the community and to increase graduation rates of a population with low literacy rates and high economic vulnerability. 

By involving women groups in the project, additional spaces for literacy, accounting courses, and workshops have been added. The new mosque engages women and the youth positively in addition to other spaces, as productive members of the community.

The project introduces Compressed Earth Bricks (CEB) made with laterite soil found on-site; a new material in the area with the advantage of being lower maintenance than adobe, with similar thermal benefits. Most of the project materials are sourced from less than a 5km radius distance to the site, while the use of concrete is limited to structural elements such as columns and lintels. 

The thermal mass of the CEBs and natural ventilation keep indoor temperatures comfortable and remove the need for mechanical cooling. The effect is amplified with extensive planting throughout the site, using a drip irrigation system to help the vegetation thrive. The system dramatically lowers water consumption and will use an underground water reservoir that captures the rainy season’s downpours.

“Architecture for health…”

Women’s empowerment centers, better schools, culture, and education hubs, and many other facilities would have not served a sick and unhealthy society. “To be able to achieve the laudable goals (of preventing and treating HIV/AIDS), especially for us in sub-Saharan Africa, there is the need for us to invest in improving our weak health systems. The inadequate number of healthcare facilities in many of our countries is a major issue of concern.”John Dramani Mahama. 

To face the inadequate number of healthcare facilities, The Emergency NGO Children’s Surgical Hospital was designed by TAMassociati with Renzo Piano Building Workshop for Pediatric Surgery, at Lake Victoria, 35 Kilometers from Kampala. The Hospital is built by using resources of the earth, water, and the sun. A strong sustainable approach in design choices: load bearing walls with the rammed earth technique and a roof made from a suspended canopy structure supporting 3,700 square meters of photovoltaic panels.

Children’s Surgical Hospital_Bird view_2021_©EMERGENCY_NGO

Responding to the site’s topographical curves towards a nearby lake, the scheme’s walls and pathways form terraces on which the hospital itself stands. Stacked walls break the distinction between various zones to create a unity between the lake, park, and internal hospital environment, leading to “a spatial continuum between interior and exterior.” Born from the earth, the hospital gets its energy from the sun, with 9,800 square meters of photovoltaic panels ensuring the hospital has an autonomous electricity supply during the day. 

The photovoltaic roof “floats” above the building, also guaranteeing shade for the hospital and uncovered walkways. Africa has not only brought to the world a rich architectural heritage, the innovative architecture being implemented on the continent continues to pursue solutions to provide a better service to local communities by inspiring itself from the cultural history of the continent through sustainable and vernacular ways to truly modify places and give people better-living conditions and also answer to poor societies, not only in Africa, but all around the world.

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