Quality entry-level property ownership is a determinant and driver of household and social welfare; it is often the most significant asset and contributor to economic wealth for most African families. An integral part of building a solid and sustainable middle-class is access to homeownership (land and property rights), which remains limited for most Sub-Saharan Africans. When the secondary market for affordable housing becomes more developed, generational wealth and broader access to the economy becomes possible for historically under-served people.

Recent data from the International Finance Corporation (IFC) states that 40,000 new people are born across African cities daily, many of who will experience challenges accessing good quality affordable shelter. Kenya and Nigeria have been noted as high-priority countries with an estimated shortfall of 2 million units in Kenya and an incredible 17 million in Nigeria.

The continent faces challenges in its response to demand that include land availability, cost (including the prohibitive cost of land, which makes it challenging to produce quality products at affordable pricing), access to funding, under-developed mortgage loan environments, access to equity, and pre-sale requirements and financing solutions that make sense for all stakeholders. This has made homelessness endemic within the continent.

There is no agreed consensus on how many people are homeless. Still, it doesn’t take a lot of research to see that it is an immense problem, so much that it is viewed as a primary social dependency issue. 

Fortunately, the rise of commerce offers a system that has the potential to solve the problem. According to the World Integrated Trade Solution (WITS), Sub-Saharan Africa had a total export of 241,361,532.57 in thousands of US$ and total imports of 253,395,460.66 in thousands of US$, leading to a negative trade balance of -12,033,928.

Now, this isn’t something that reflects positively on us, but it says that there are a lot more containers coming than is going out. And as a measure of affordable housing, the left-over shipping containers should be used to fill the housing gap. It’s also possible they could be stop-gap solutions in temporary settlements while permanent homes are constructed on more suitable ground. Then the containers could move on to the next site.

Shelter is one of the most fundamental rights of individuals in a society. Unfortunately, we do not operate in a utopia, so it takes more systemic placements and expenses to make this a reality. In the meantime, tens of millions of Africans have to navigate life in terrible conditions. 

Many initiatives have been launched and shut down for one reason or the other. A well-intended scheme to pave green acres with row-after-row of brightly-painted starter houses has faltered. That’s because the economy simply cannot afford the luxury of brick-and-mortar houses at the pace the situation demands.

Moreover, we cannot afford to allow the backlog to keep increasing. We must do something now in a way we can afford. Therefore we need to find innovative new ways to stabilize the situation.

We believe used shipping containers can swiftly act as a solution to achievable low-cost housing. This is because shipping container homes are affordable and quick, and easy to erect.

Containers are finding their way into innovative construction projects worldwide because of their practical and economic advantages. For example, Qatar is cottoning on to its potential for its ultra-high-tech 2022 world cup project.

Fenwick Iribarren Architects have designed a 40,000-seater stadium in a series of blocks comprising modified shipping containers. These will be purpose-modified to perform as concessions, stairs, and bathrooms.

The Ras Abu Aboud Stadium will go down in history as the first demountable, movable, and reusable sports stadium in the world. It is pushing for a 4-star rating by the global sustainable assessment system.

Closer to home, we have the Brixton Umhlanga Junction Extension student apartment scheme. The striking block of 75 single student pads went up in two months based on a series of single container modules.

Various materials, cladding, and colours combine to achieve a modern and appealing look. A communal kitchen and dining area, recreation room, lounge, and laundry complete home-from-home accommodation for modern students.

Drivelines Studios launched a new urban development in Johannesburg’s Maboneng precinct mixed-space environment, comprising upcycled used containers stacked 7-high.

The attractive apartments with city views are currently sold as ‘modular homes’ priced from USD8,500 upwards and attract rentals of USD500 a month.


Containers compete on a straight-cost basis. However, they have other benefits that outshine brick and mortar houses:

Shipping containers are portable. You can move them around. Try doing that with brick and mortar foundations. This means you can relocate them to another site by picking them up with a crane and loading them on a flatbed. You can also stack them to create duplexes and demount them to form simplexes with the simplest foundations.


Advantage # 1: Portability

Perhaps the most significant single advantage of shipping container homes is they are designed to be picked up, moved around, and stacked as complete units. Compare this with the task of shipping bricks, trusses, roof sheets, dry walls, etc., to a rural location.

Pilferage has always been a problem on building sites where sticky fingers are hoping to steal a door or a window. Finding a roof truss missing at a critical moment can be a nightmare for a builder working on a greenfield project. However, having the floor, walls, and roof in one piece holds more promises than that.

Advantage # 2: Rapid Transport, Relocation, and Removal from Site

A brick and mortar house stands forever on its foundations, unless we demolish it or it burns down. If it turns out wrongly positioned on a stand, it may have to come down or be abandoned.

Moreover, if looming climate change turns a field bedside a stream into a flood zone, the bricks and foundations are left to rot. In all of the above instances, a container truck could have picked a container building up and relocated it to another site.

That way, the owner retains their asset, and the government does not have to build another home. Containers are the only portable low-cost housing solution as far as we know.

Advantage # 3: Greater Project Flexibility

Land ownership is fluid. A well-intended low-cost housing project can find itself on hold when a seller unexpectedly pulls out of a deal. Expenditure on brick and mortar can become fruitless when assumptions fail.

Any work done on brick-and-mortar houses becomes wasted when this happens. That’s where shipping container homes truly prove their worth. If the land is not successfully acquired, the housing authority can uplift and move them to another location. 

Advantage # 4: Stackability for Greater Productivity of Land

Shipping container homes are designed with stack-ability in mind, and they don’t have to be in tower blocks either. A semi-stacked container village can create shelters to sit out beneath or cultivate a small garden.

When we achieve greater land productivity this way, it brings us closer to the homeless person’s dream of living close to amenities and improved job prospects. Other containers nearby could house clinics, primary school classrooms, and convenience shops.

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