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Reviving Rwanda: One civil engineer's quest to build sustainable housing in Africa

Through a global building design competition a British civil engineer is planning on bringing new optimism to hundreds of vulnerable people on the earthquakeaffected island of Nkombo - situated in beautiful Lake Kivu, south-west Rwanda. In turn, Martyn Harris hopes the winning entry can be a catalyst for similar areas across the world.

“There are the problems of hunger. The problems of health. The problems of finding work,” Désiré Nyabyenda says, shaking his head into his hands, almost laughing at the absurdity of his family’s situation.

After an earthquake struck eight-square mile Nkombo Island in February 2008 Désiré’s family home was destroyed. Twenty months on he now cooks and lives with his wife and seven malnourished children in a tin, canvas and foliage shack - hardly bigger than a two-man tent. From a population of 17,000, almost 150 earthquake-affected families on Nkombo are still living like this, often just a tarpaulin shack as a home.

“How can I feel good? There is no life living in a place like this.”

Désiré Nyabyenda

The view from Désiré’s rusted iron sheet door, which is covered in chalk-written maths equations, takes in stunning vistas of Lake Kivu and west across to mountain ranges in near-neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Yet it’s doubtful his mind turns to beautiful sunsets much.

“How can I feel good? There is no life living in a place like this.” Apart from his home, Désiré, 35, has no land or livestock of his own and works, when he can find it, for others, cultivating land for the oft-repeated cry in parts of Africa of ‘less than a dollar a day’.

But, unlike many Rwandan families on impoverished Nkombo, who echo similar shocking stories, Désiré currently has hope and before this Christmas should be living in his new “progressive house” care of the UK-based charity Rwanda Aid.

The charity reacted quickly to the earthquake, setting up an appeal which managed to raise enough funds to build five houses for the most affected families. The progressive houses, western in their basic design, feature strong termite and earthquake resistant foundations, rainwater harvesting, fuel efficient rammed-earth stoves and organic toilets.

The charity has since been able to raise further funds for six more progressive houses on Nkombo and construction is under way.

“It will change my life,” Désiré says. “It will still be hard to eat and live. But it will be wonderful.”

Martyn Harris, who gave up his job as contract manager for an engineering firm in 2008 to volunteer for Rwanda Aid, is helping oversee the current construction on Nkombo. While he realises the immediate need of the islanders he sees a bigger picture for the locals and others like them in terms of them helping themselves.

“I felt these progressive houses represent a major advance in living standards on Nkombo, however, there was scope for further step-improvements in terms of sustainability, durability, cost-effectiveness, health and hygiene’,” he says.

“The problem we face is there are very few standard building resources available locally for the islanders. Transportation costs are enormous and we need to start thinking about what is readily available on the island.”

His goal is to build a further 12 houses on Nkombo utilising more sustainable materials “to drive down costs so perhaps in time a new house for a family on Nkombo is not beyond their own personal means.”

Design competition

By opening the design process up as a competition to engineers, architects, environmentalists, builders and the like, Harris is positive some innovative and sustainable ideas will be submitted – the best of which will be incorporated in the next phase of house building.

One winner will be chosen from full time student applications and another from submissions by graduates or those currently in the work force. Each winner will be rewarded with a free flight to Rwanda, internal transport and local accommodation for a period of two weeks. They will join the construction team and get hands on in the housing project.

“Entries should address issues such as sustainable technology, environmental awareness, improved health and living conditions, whilst also being mindful of costs- by driving down costs, more houses can be built and thus a greater number of people helped.”

Martyn Harris

He has several theories of what could be the most strategic solution, from rammed-earth structures to sand and mud bag domes - “but there seem to be hurdles with all considerations”. Nkombo lies in the Great Rift Valley which runs through Central and Eastern Africa so more earthquakes are a real possibility. The wet-season yields a tremendous rainfall, turning the high clay-content soil to sludge, while the dry months are hot and arid.

Harris thinks applicants need to strongly consider what is best suitable for the Nkombo locals yet account for a design that could easily translate into a similar situation elsewhere in the region.

“Entries should address issues such as sustainable technology, environmental awareness, improved health and living conditions, whilst also being mindful of costs- by driving down costs, more houses can be built and thus a greater number of people helped.”

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