Peanut shells, rice bran, cow pat and homemade moulds… Our material maker continues her inspiring immersion in Togo, at the bio-sourced local material lab.
In the context of the incubation of my project La Termatière, design agency specialised in bio-sourced materials, I went off to examine how the Lomé Housing and Construction Centre (CCL) in Togo operated. The Centre is similar in all respects to what I am aiming for in terms of activities.
A low-tech R&D
Besides its activities of monitoring and market research on the local materials of the region, documentation and training of masons, architects, labourers on local construction techniques, the CCL endeavours to research and develop procedures and methodologies to improve traditional techniques. R&D focuses on three main areas: the search for a binder to replace cement (costly, regularly in shortage, and an eyesore on the architectural landscape like concrete), the search for roofing solutions in order to remove corrugated iron (imported raw material, costly and ill-adapted to high temperatures); the search for waterproof natural coating to promote local banco constructions (mud brick, moulded and air-dried, made from clay and water) that get damaged during the rain season.
However laboratories lie idle due to equipment more than 80% unusable because it is too dilapidated: it dates back to the seventies when the Centre was created. The CCL resources come from an annual financing from the State of Togo on the one hand, and of the revenue generated from the sale of materials and services on the other hand (consulting for NGOs, construction work, trainings). The budget does not allow for investment in machines.
“Carrying out R&D by making do with what is at hand is more of a constraint than a desired orientation. The idea is to turn this lack of technological means into an advantage, revisiting and rekindling more hand-crafted and traditional practices and fabrication methods.”
Seth Atiode Amogou, CCL managing director
All the moulds for the compression samples are produced on site; the operational machines are sometimes tinkered with and patched up to obtain the desired outcome; the laboratory technicians examine ancestral recipes for the production of economical construction materials with a view to readjusting them by using the available mills, presses, crushers and mixers.
Facing the completely rusty extruder, one thinks about making another by finding plans on the Internet. The maker movement brings prototyping solutions at a low cost in which the Centre could invest with a view to reequip itself in order to successfully carry out its research, at least during an experimental phase.
Near open-source applied research
The strength of the CCL comes from its will to carry out applied research. Engineer researchers work in close collaboration with the architect of the Centre and the economist. The common objective is to optimise the production process, the implementation and the cost, in order to, for example, build social housing with easily replicable local materials. It is also about making the tools (construction plans, material recipes) available for the population so that it can build its housing units itself. This more social approach finds its balance by the sale of the licenses of the two patents filed by the Centre: the production of whitewash from dolomite and the production of compressed mud bricks.
One of the ongoing studies consists of finding economical fuel solutions to produce clay tiles, charcoal being located much further inland in the country and slow cooking needing too much raw material. Why not learn from the bio-fuels developed at Banfora in Burkina Faso, or still
palm kernel shell charcoal?
Method for bio-fuels (briquettes made from carbonised vegetable waste) from Burkina Faso:
There are ideas to be exploited in waste…
Agro-materials are precisely a preferred line by the CCL. A partnership has been set up with the agronomics school of Lomé University. I thus met the professor Komla Sanda, who is experimenting at present the saponifying power of a decoction of dried fruit, with a view to create natural insecticides.
Ouro-Djobo Samah, former director of the CCL, researched for years the use of straw as a composite in the bio-sourced material. At present, his attention is drawn by the grains of the Lomé Brewery, residue from the brewing of malt, similar to what is being done by the ZéBU projectof the Zone-AH!, association that campaigns for the creation of agro-urban third places.
Research is also being carried out on boards of bio-sourced particles, made from sawdust, bound with bone glue or processed tannin. Rice bran was also the subject of an analysis in view of producing insulation boards. But research is struggling to result in a production to be distributed…
“The problem here, is the absence of sufficient and autonomous manufacturing activities that would allow us to mass produce our local materials. In Togo, we import ill-adapted materials and we export our wealth, taking no interest in what the population could profit from it. And what’s more, there is no integrated industry approach… We are struggling to convince farmers of the benefits of agro-materials.”
Komla Sanda, teacher, agronomics school of Lomé University
The issues raised by the CCL are in the same line as the convictions of La Termatière. This month of constructive exchanges motivated me to pursue the long road ahead towards the creation of a cooperative company. Barely back home, I went straight back to the financing files, the contests, the preparation of a coached market study and the development of my R&D program, as low-tech as possible!