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Kenya's housing crisis: Can 3D printing provide a solution?

Agencies   -  
Copyright © africanews


In the impoverished slums of Nairobi, Jacinter Awino navigates her daily chores amidst a maze of rusty iron sheets. The small tin shack that lacks a toilet and running water has been her family's shelter for years, costing about $380 to build. Her husband, who earns about $75 per month from casual construction jobs, struggles to provide for their four children.

Awino envies those who have moved to more permanent dwellings under the government’s affordable housing plan. However, the $3,800 purchase price for a one-room government house is beyond their reach. "We would really love to move into better houses, but we do not have the money to afford them. Those government houses are like a dream for us, but our incomes simply don't allow it," she says.

The Kenyan government aims to build 250,000 houses each year to address a housing deficit that the World Bank estimates at 2 million units. The plan, launched in 2022, has yet to release data on the number of houses completed.

To meet the growing demand for housing, some are turning to the innovative technology of 3D printing. This method uses a machine to layer special mortar to form concrete walls, significantly reducing building time compared to traditional methods.

One company, 14Trees, has utilized this technology to construct a showcase house in Nairobi and 10 houses in coastal Kilifi County. CEO Francois Perrot believes this technology can help address the massive housing need across Africa but acknowledges it will take time. "We need to build differently, we need to build at scale, with speed and with low carbon materials, and this is what construction 3D printing makes possible," Perrot explains.

Despite the promise of this technology, the cost remains a barrier. A two-bedroom 3D printed house costs $22,000, while a three-bedroom house costs $29,000. Perrot is hopeful that localizing the production of printers and mortar will help reduce costs. "People don’t really worry or care about technology. What they care about is the design, the price, the way it is set up, the layout of the building," he adds.

Nickson Otieno, an architect and founder of the sustainability consulting firm Niko Green, sees great potential in this new technology but acknowledges its limitations. “It will still take a long time for it to compete with brick and mortar," he says. "Brick and mortar, everybody can build their house anywhere they are. They are able to access the materials, they are able to access the tradesmen who build the house and they can plan the cost."

Kenya’s urban population, which constitutes a third of the country's total population of over 50 million, faces significant housing challenges. According to UN-Habitat, 70% of urban dwellers live in informal settlements with inadequate infrastructure.

Some urban Kenyans have benefited from a government housing project on the outskirts of Nairobi, where one-bedroom units sold for $7,600 last year. Felister Muema, a 55-year-old former caterer, paid a deposit of about 10% through a savings plan and is expected to pay off the balance over 25 years. “This is where I have started living my life," she says. "If I do something here, it is permanent. If I plant a flower, no one is going to tell me ‘Uproot it, I don’t want it there.' This gives me life.”

To meet the housing deficit, experts stress the need for changes in construction and financing. In June 2023, Kenya’s parliament passed a finance law introducing a housing tax of 1.5% on gross income to fund affordable housing. However, the law faces a legal challenge, with critics arguing it is discriminatory as it applies only to those with formal employment.

If the tax is rejected, Kenya’s government will need to find alternative funding sources to build affordable housing. President William Ruto has defended the necessity of the tax, emphasizing its role in addressing the country's housing crisis.

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