Want to build a house in West Africa? Here are 5 alternative materials you can use

Let’s get this out of the way immediately, alternative means “not mainstream”. It does not imply inferiority. And what is considered mainstream has always been very arbitrary. For example, in Europe & Asia, while Afrobeats music is very popular especially recently, it would still be considered an alternative form of music. However, In Africa, that same music is as mainstream as mainstream can get.

Before the 1900s in West Africa, brick and mortar would have been considered an alternative material while mud was the mainstream, it’s interesting to see the role reversal that has taken place in less than 200 years.

Old mud house in Togo

The construction industry has always been very conservative (nice way of saying “resistant to change”. The composition of cement today has largely remained unchanged for the past 500 years at least). And this is very understandable considering that the results of making a bad choice in construction can be devastating. What’s more, it would take at least 10 years for any given structure to prove its longevity and integrity so when builders have a material that has for centuries proven itself as a solid option for building, they tend to stick with it.

The problem is, with the population explosion the world is currently experiencing, the “mainstream” building materials cannot meet the challenge of providing homes for everyone who needs one as can be seen in the housing crisis being faced across the world in developed and developing countries.

There is a need for creative thinking in terms of what is considered a suitable material for a home to be built.

Alternative building materials are those that are not currently accepted as mainstream by the vast majority of players in the construction industry.

In this article, we will be introducing five popular (and a few not so popular) alternative building materials, these materials have faster build times & are eco-friendly compared to mainstream building materials like brick & mortar.


rendering of a One storey wood house in the US

While wood is not exactly a common building material in West Africa, it gets more play in countries like the US where there is a more prevalent wood building culture.

There are a couple of drawbacks with using wood as a building material, chief among these is the reluctance to add even more pressure to the world’s forests in these precarious times. However, there are some notable advantages and benefits to using wood;

  • Significant electric & heat resistance
  • Remarkable sound absorption properties
  • Wood is also very eco-friendly, biodegradable and easy to obtain and manipulate

Some famous structures that have wood as their primary material include;

Some disadvantages of using wood in the construction of homes include;

  • High flammability (the term “firewood” comes to mind)
  • High susceptibility to water damage & termites
  • It could also be less environmentally friendly in regions with low regulation

Rammed Earth

Single-family unit rammed earth home

Rammed earth, is a technique for constructing foundations, floors, and walls using natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime, or gravel. It is an ancient method that has been revived recently as a sustainable building method, parts of the Great Wall of China were constructed using the technique and are still standing more than 2,000 years later.

Making rammed earth involves compacting a damp mixture of subsoil that has suitable proportions of sand, gravel, clay, and stabilizer if any into a formwork (an externally supported frame or mould).

Historically, additives such as lime or animal blood were used to stabilize it. however, in modern times synthetic chemicals have been developed to act as stabilizers.

Rammed earth walls contain excellent thermal mass. If you’re visiting a rammed earth home in a tropical region, you’ll find the home to be nice and cool during the daytime, without the aid of an air conditioner or fan. If you’re staying overnight, the home will begin to warm up as it cools down outside. This is due to the thermal flywheel effect. The walls hold in warmth and exude it about 12 hours later.

Rammed earth walls are also extremely fire-resistant because there are no flammable components in the earth.

Other than the walls, you might not even be able to tell you’re in a rammed earth home because, in most other ways, it resembles a conventionally built house and the walls can be painted over using normal paint or cladding.

Some famous structures built using rammed earth are

Some disadvantages of using rammed earth in the construction of homes include;

  • Difficulty in finding skilled professionals
  • More money is spent on the foundation since rammed earth walls are heavier than concrete walls
  • Only certain types of soil can be used in the construction of rammed earth walls

Shipping Containers

mini-apartment complex

This is an interesting option and might be one of the keys to solving the housing crisis facing countries like Nigeria and Ghana.

As net importers, there is an excess of shipping containers in these countries with a need for an eco-friendly and sustainable means of disposing of them.

Re-purposing them into modular homes is one way that people are beginning to take on this challenge. Shipping containers can withstand incredible pressure as they are built to be exposed to the elements, and stacked up to 8 containers high when they are fully loaded.

Because used containers are essentially a waste material, they can be obtained cheaply and repurposed relatively faster into low-cost housing.

One storey container home in Togo

These homes can be manufactured offsite, shipped to the site and assembled quickly, Even without bolting the shipping containers down they can withstand high winds and storms. Unsecured and standing alone, they can handle winds of up to 100 mph.

They really shine when used in swampy or flood-prone areas and for multilevel buildings.

Container buildings have been found to cost on average 25–45% less than comparable buildings using traditional materials.

Here are some famous structures created using containers;

Some disadvantages of using shipping containers in the construction of homes include;

  • Difficulty in finding skilled professionals
  • Need for insulation could knock out the price advantage of using them
  • Risk of using containers which have been sprayed with harmful chemicals

Expanded polystyrene concrete (EPS)

Family home built using EPS

This is a relatively new material compared to the previous two. It is sometimes called lightweight concrete and has been used to create mass housing in rural communities across Africa. It does not look significantly different from traditional concrete after construction and is created by using small lightweight Styrofoam or EPS balls as an aggregate instead of the crushed stone that is used in regular concrete. It is not as strong as stone-based concrete mixes but has other advantages such as increased thermal and sound insulation properties, easy shaping and ability to be formed by hand with sculpturing and construction tools.

Mass housing project in Kenya

This list is by no means exhaustive and it seems like every day, new materials are being discovered or re-discovered as being suitable for building.

Some other materials that deserve an honorary mention are;


3D Printing


In summary

What is considered mainstream in the building industry has changed and evolved over the years and is not based necessarily on what is the “best” material but on what is generally available.

New materials are being discovered or rediscovered every day which have qualities that make them a tangible and sometimes better alternative to brick & mortar.

With the population trends in Africa and the current housing crisis, traditional materials have been shown to be unable to meet the challenge.

It is a safe bet to say that these “alternative” materials will continue to gain popularity especially as they prove their reliability.

Cofundie is working hard to mainstream the use of alternative materials in home construction as we believe that it would go a long way towards solving the housing crisis in West Africa. Visit us here . Sign up, sign in and subscribe to our newsletter for the best analysis on the real estate investment sector as well as financial literacy in general.

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