GA Collaborative at AUHF 2014: Village Seeks Business Model

Published: Sunday, November 16th, 2014 by Aaron Leaf

Yutaka Sho runs GA Collaborative, a non-profit design firm working with underserved people to create innovative solutions for a range of problems including affordable housing. The organization’s main focus currently is the creation of a low-cost fifty-home village in Masoro, Rwanda. The plan for the village is based on prototypes built with EarthBags, a South African-designed method of low-cost sustainable construction that improves on long-standing earthbag techniques.

Images Courtesy of GA Collaborative

Sho, an architect, got into affordable housing by accident. Until recently, the focus of her work had been to design “open and democratic public structures” like libraries and student centers – places where public life happens.

In 2008, through a grant from the Architecture League of New York, she went to Rwanda for the first time. Her mission was to understand how cities work when women are the major force behind development and reconstruction. “After the genocide,” Sho explained, “70 percent of the population were women.” In the last twenty years, women have found themselves tasked with the country’s reconstruction, even though their role was marginalized prior to the genocide.

GA Collaborative’s meetings with Rwandan civil society organizations run by women revealed communities’ desire to develop and own their own villages while participating in the government’s “villagization” housing policy. As the government rolls out new infrastructure, this policy aims to densify rural settlements to maximize its impact and penetration into Rwandan communities.

Sho found that affordable housing aligned well with their original mission. Like many large housing programs, Rwanda’s national housing plan has faced implementation challenges as families have been displaced and social structures overturned. Delays in infrastructure have meant hardship for many of the resettled. Given that much of public life in Rwanda happens within private homes, housing is critical for community development.

Building with EarthBags

Rwanda produces neither processed building materials or nor many raw inputs for them – no wood, glass, steel or petroleum. Given that the country is landlocked, importing construction materials raises the cost of home-building. As a result, homes in rural Rwanda are often built with adobe bricks. While inexpensive, these materials tend to disintegrate in the rains.

EarthBags are used to protect the adobe with a polypropylene skin to make the structure stronger and more weather resistant. The polypropylene used for the bags comes from waste generated by chemical processing and is used all over Africa to create inexpensive yet durable bags for transporting goods.

The downside to polypropylene is that an outer layer of plaster or shingles is needed to compensate for its weak resistance to UV radiation. Sho says GA Collaborative is working with engineering students from Syracuse University, where she teaches, to create an inexpensive non-structural outer layer.

Images Courtesy of GA Collaborative

“EarthBags,” says Sho, “have a very low carbon footprint compared to other materials. But the ultimate benefit is how easy they are to use. Give people a 2-3 hour workshop, and they can do it themselves.”

Seeking Business Partners and Funding

The bulk of funding for the EarthBag building project, including two prototype homes, has come from grants and crowd-funding. The second prototype was funded by a private donor. Government entities have pledged to source land and help finance operating costs. The organization is working towards a for-profit model and seeing partners to execute, build a business and scale-up production of EarthBag houses.

“Right now we’re in conversation with local governments, the Rwandan Ministry of Infrastructure and the Survivors Fund” says Sho. The Survivors Fund (SURF) supports survivors of the Rwandan genocide, with shelter and livelihoods among the organization’s project areas. Land has been provided free by the local administrators, and the Rwandan government will subsidize operating costs by offering to pay basic wages to future residents who provide labor. The funding bottleneck is currently driven by the need to finance building materials.

GA Collaborative is currently registering for for-profit company status in Rwanda to fund their non-profit work. “Our first project is to build a hotel and conference hall in Ruhengeri in northern Rwanda,” says Sho.

While EarthBags are copyrighted in South Africa, Johnny Anderton, their creator, is supportive of their use. “If we were going to go to a bigger scale, we agreed he would get a cut.”

Meeting the Affordability and Financing Challenge

Images Courtesy of GA Collaborative

While the relevant ministries have indicated their support for the project, GA Collaborative has been asked to bring the cost down by half. Cutting unit construction costs from $15,000 to $7,500 is proving difficult.

“We realized that at this pace and method,” says Sho, “we would never be able to create housing that is cheap enough for the poor.”

“At the same time there is no financial product for the poor to take out loans,” she says. “All the loans require collateral but people in this area get paid 50 to 75 cents a day. Paying $200 is impossible. Paying $10,0000 is impossible. The whole system of housing for the poor needs to change.”Sho recognizes that, as architects, they need the experience of entrepreneurs to structure their business plan. “We are in conversation with a couple different NGOs that tackle this issue.”

At AUH 2014, Sho hopes to share the GA Collaborative’s experience, meet others with similar business model challenges and identify potential business partners to help with scaling up. GA Collaborative’s intention, says Sho, is that communities own the process and own the house to diminish aid dependency. Sho will be presenting the the GA Collaborative’s work and the use of EarthBags on Monday, November 17 at 10am.While EarthBags she says are “so easy it’s unbelievable” they do come with a host of issues. That’s why GA Collaborative is committed to continue exploring new methods and materials.