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Housing our people: Developing adequate housing for Africans

7th December 2012

By: In On Africa IOA


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Africa is the second most populous continent with over one billion inhabitants.(2) It has the highest population growth rate in the world and in the next 40 years its population is expected to double or even triple.(3) While the continent faces countless opportunities with such a large and growing population, there are many challenges that accompany it. Ensuring that Africa’s people, the majority still in their youth, have access to their basic needs is a driving concern for the present and the future. One of these primary needs, in a continent where many are forced to dwell in habitations and communities that are less than satisfactory, is adequate housing. Indeed, of the “32 least-developed countries in Africa, 82% of the urban residents live in informal settlements.”(4)

This CAI paper explores the issue of adequate housing as a right to be enjoyed by all Africans. It discusses the international criteria for adequate housing and some of the consequences of neglecting these criteria. Examples of effective housing solutions being implemented by Governments, the private sector, and the citizen sector from across Africa are further discussed with the view to illustrate that housing for everyone is indeed possible.


The nature of adequate housing

Access to adequate housing is a universal basic human right. International standards pertaining to this right have been established by the United Nations (UN) based on international human rights provisions.(5) This was initially identified as party to the larger “right to an adequate standard of living in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.”(6) Every state has furthermore “ratified at least one international treaty referring to adequate housing and committed themselves to protecting the right to adequate housing through international declarations, plans of action or conference outcome documents.”(7)


While adequate housing refers to one’s place of habitation, it is not limited to simply having a structure in place. Other factors, such as financial, legal and operational factors, must be taken into account because they directly affect housing.(8) According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, there are seven minimum criteria for adequate housing: security of tenure; availability of services, materials, facilities and infrastructure; affordability; habitability; accessibility; location; cultural adequacy.(9)

Neglected criteria: Far-reaching consequences

The realisation of these criteria is extremely important because failure to do so can have far-reaching ramifications. Maysa Sabah Shocair, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) advisor to the Affordable Housing Institute, contends that frustrations related to the lack of affordable housing in North Africa were complicit in fomenting the recent wave of the Arab Spring.(10) With the high population growth and youthful contingent across North Africa, the frustrations of major housing shortfalls became volatile.(11) In Algeria alone, where the youth unemployment rate is above 40%, over 40,000 protests occurred in 2011 in which the demand for adequate housing played a central role.(12)

Furthermore, if housing developers neglect the criteria they run the risk of creating unsustainable developments that easily degenerate into the “slums of tomorrow.”(13) This has a negative social impact on residents who may feel branded as “poor or outcasts” due to the dilapidated conditions in which they live.(14) In turn, this creates a circular situation in which negative feedback precipitates citizen unrest and protest.

Poor housing also tends to have adverse effects on health. Cardiovascular and respiratory diseases commonly affect people in developing countries due to indoor air pollution.(15) A common source of this pollution is the “burning of biomass and coal in leaky and inefficient household stoves.”(16) Poor ventilation also increases the transmission of communicable airborne diseases such as tuberculosis.(17) HIV and AIDS are escalated by 1.7 times in urban areas versus rural areas; this is even further augmented in slum versus non-slum areas.(18) Inadequate housing also leads to exposure to extremes of temperature which has the potential to lead to sickness and even death.(19)

The neglect of adequate housing criteria impacts on the social, political and physical health of a nation. There are other spheres which are impacted by the nature of housing produced in a nation, but these few examples serve to demonstrate the far-reaching impact of the quality of housing.

Finding solutions

It is generally accepted that Governments are responsible for ensuring that adequate housing requirements are met. The UN’s international standards hold Governments as legally obligated to ensure the full realisation of the right to adequate housing, taking into consideration a small degree of contextual variability.(20) While this is so, it has become increasingly apparent that Governments are generally not equipped for the entire implementation of adequate housing policies. This can be due to a variety of factors such as “lack of political will, bureaucracy, political instability, limited resources, [and] corruption.”(21) A case in point is Ghana’s Water Resources, Works and Housing Minister, Enoch Mensah’s recent complaint that “not a single unit out of the over 4,700 housing units dotted across the country were completed even though some GHS 70 million (US$ 36.8 million) had been sunk into the [affordable housing] project.”(22)

While some of Africa’s Governments have been less than satisfactory in addressing the need for adequate housing, others have made notable achievements in this area. In South Africa, over 13 million people have been catered for by the Government’s building of 3 million new homes between 1994 and 2011.(23) South Africa’s strategy involves upgrading informal settlements so that they meet the adequate housing criteria and formalising those that already do; by June 2011, 206 informal settlements of the 335 that had been identified nationwide for this process had been formalised.(24)

South Africa’s Government also aims to cater for low-income households through several interventions. The Community Rental Unit (CRU) programme “aims to facilitate the provision of secure, stable rental tenure” for those who are unable to enter the formal private rental and social housing market and whose monthly earnings fall between ZAR 800 and ZAR 3,500 (US$ 91.76 and US$ 401,38).(25) Another important Government intervention is Mortgage Default Insurance which was implemented by the Department of Human Settlements in September 2011.(26) This product “ensures that home owners have shelter if they default on their repayments,” while simultaneously ensuring returns for the relevant bond lenders and financiers.(27) This targets “low- to middle-income households” that would likely be rejected by banks.

Engaging the private sector

As previously alluded to, African Governments are recognising the need to involve the private sector in the drive to provide housing for their nations.(28) However, the majority of “private initiatives sponsored by developing country Governments have benefited middle-income rather than low-income families.”(29) This results in neglect of the most vulnerable sectors of the population. As such, citizen- and private sector-led initiatives have become important interventions in the full realisation of the right to adequate housing.(30)

Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) is an internationally recognised non-profit organisation in the housing sector that has its roots in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of Congo.(31) Since its inception in the 1970s it has built effectively on its vision “to eliminate poverty housing and homelessness from the world, and to make decent shelter a matter of conscience and action.”(32) HFHI currently operates in 13 African countries and utilises an approach that takes into account the unique challenges of each context.(33) HFHI works in partnership with families and other approved organisations to achieve its goals.(34) Some of HFHI’s innovations across Africa include microfinance for use in home improvements, programmes that provide adequate shelter for families that are HIV and AIDS affected, and helping to ensure that family homes are inherited by vulnerable children and orphans.(35)

Private sector businesses also play an important role in developing adequate housing that targets the most vulnerable in society. Heinrich Schroeder of Namibia is achieving this through his company Kavango Block Brick (KBB).(36) Schroeder devised a unique building system that utilises interlocking masonry blocks which are stacked into an isometric wall.(37) Bonding cement is used and “two apertures are provided for services for plumbing and electrical.”(38) While the KBB system maintains international building standards and is approved by several institutions, including the National Home Builders Registration Council of South Africa, Schroeder’s target market is Africa’s poor communities.(39) This innovative design requires only the most basic of tools and remains a “sturdy, efficient and affordable” means of providing adequate housing.(40)

Another innovation issued from the private sector is the Makoko Floating Community Project as envisioned by Nigerian architect Kunle Adeyemi.(41) The Makoko community on Lake Lagos was initially a fishing community that has developed into a large slum on stilts.(42) The community lives under the constant threat of being demolished by local authorities due to the illegal status of its structures and the environmental danger it poses.(43) While still in the planning phase, Adeyemi’s vision entails creating a “3-story school out of 16 floating platforms lashed together, capable of holding 100 students and teachers.”(44) Among the materials used would be plastic drums and local wood.(45) This is a pilot project for Adeyemi’s bigger vision to see the whole community “living in triangular structures that capture solar energy and rainwater.”(46) Furthermore, this model serves as a prototype for dealing with the effects of climate change effectively.(47) In the face of rising water levels, waterfront communities could benefit from adopting similar innovations.(48)

Mobilising citizenry

The citizen sector has also played an invaluable role in assisting fellow Africans to enjoy their rights to good housing. This has been accomplished especially through the creation of networks such as the South African Homeless People’s Federation (SAHPF). This federation targets the bottom 20% of earners and utilises collective action as its principal method for empowering communities to be able to address issues that they prioritise.(49) SAHPF mobilises community members to take ownership by using their “money, time and labour” while representing the community in negotiating for “complementary goods.”(50) This collective offers four main services: exchange, financing, house model exhibitions, and enumeration.(51)

While SAHPF enjoys success in achieving its objectives, it is also part of a wider network called Slum Dwellers International (SDI). SDI shares a very similar vision to SAHPF in that it aims to develop “self-reliance within low-income communities.”(52) It does this mainly through facilitating the networking of “urban poor communities from cities across the South that have developed successful mobilisation, advocacy, and problem solving strategies.”(53) SDI also helps by creating platforms for its members to engage with international organisations and Governments. In 2007, SDI launched the Urban Poor Fund International (UPFI) “that provides capital to member national urban poor funds.”(54) This approach is particularly important as it is “the first global fund to give poor people direct control over development spending in cities.”(55) UPFI operates mainly by providing ‘patient capital’ which bridges funds promised by Government but that are delayed in delivery; it also provides ‘venture capital.’ The fund has a presence in South Africa and is adjudicated by a council which includes Rose Molokoane who lives in an informal settlement in Pretoria-west.(56)

Concluding remarks

Access to adequate housing is a universal right. It has been widely recognised that satisfaction of the criteria around adequate housing will benefit Africans on many different levels. It is globally accepted that Governments are chiefly responsible for ensuring that this need is met. Several African Governments have taken admirable steps towards meeting this responsibility. However, input from the private and citizen sectors is also vital in realising this vision on a broader level. As such, innovative, affordable and high-ownership solutions have issued from both of these sectors. Indeed, it is only through an integrated effort involving the Government, private sector and citizen sector, that adequate housing for all of Africa’s people will become a reality.

Written by Tapfuma Musewe (1)


(1) Contact Tapfuma Musewe through Consultancy Africa Intelligence's Optimistic Africa Unit (
(2) Crossette, B., et al., (eds.), ‘The state of world population 2011’, United Nations Population Fund Report,
(3) Ibid.
(4) Habitat for Humanity website,
(5) ‘International standards – adequate housing’, United Nations Humans Rights,
(6) ‘The right to adequate housing’, UN Habitat Fact Sheet No. 21,
(7) Ibid.
(8) Kan, C., ‘The affordable housing challenge’, The Middle East Magazine,
(9) ‘The right to adequate housing’, UN Habitat Fact Sheet No. 21,
(10) Kan, C., ‘The affordable housing challenge’, The Middle East Magazine,
(11) Ibid.
(12) Pare, C., ‘Algeria: The revolution that never was’, Al Jazeera, 17 May 2012,
(13) Kan, C., ‘The affordable housing challenge’, The Middle East Magazine,
(14) Schmidt, S. and Budinich, V., 2008.Housing the poor by engaging the private and citizen sectors: Social innovations and “hybrid value chains”. Global Urban Development Magazine, 4(2),
(15) ‘Housing and health’, World Health Organisation Health Impact Assessment,
(16) Ibid.
(17) Ibid.
(18) ‘HIV, AIDS and housing issues’, Interagency Coalition on AIDS and Development,
(19) ‘Housing and health’, World Health Organisation Health Impact Assessment,
(20) More information on the obligations of Governments can be found in United Nations Fact Sheet No. 21 and United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights General Comment No. 3; ‘Special Rapporteur on adequate housing as a component of the right to an adequate standard of living, and on the right to non-discrimination in this context’, United Nations Humans Rights,
(21) Kan, C., ‘The affordable housing challenge’, The Middle East Magazine,
(22) ‘Government to complete affordable housing projects’, Ghana money news and information, 12 July 2012,
(23) ‘Housing’, South African Government Information, 27 September 2012,
(24) Ibid.
(25) Ibid.
(26) Ibid.
(27) Ibid.
(28) Kan, C., ‘The affordable housing challenge’, The Middle East Magazine,
(29) Schmidt, S. and Budinich, V., 2008. Housing the poor by engaging the private and citizen sectors: Social innovations and “hybrid value chains”. Global Urban Development Magazine, 4(2),
(30) Ibid.
(31) Habitat for Humanity website,
(32) Ibid.
(33) Ibid.
(34) Ibid.
(35) Ibid.
(36) Kavango Block Brick website,
(37) Ibid.
(38) Ibid.
(39) Kavango Block Brick website,; ‘Kavango block brick finds angel financier’, New Era, 16 September 2012,
(40) ‘Kavango block brick finds angel financier’, New Era, 16 September 2012,
(41) Mead, N., et al., ‘The rise of megacities – interactive’, The Guardian, 4 October 2012,
(42) Edwards, A., ‘The floating slum on stilts: Staggering pictures of the families who fight for survival on a sea of festering filth’, Mail Online, 27 September 2012,
(43) Ibid.
(44) Adeyemo, A., ‘Nigerian architect, Kunle Adeyemi brings hope to Makoko slum with the Floating School Project’, Bella Naija, 3 October 2012,
(45) Ibid.
(46) Mead, N., et al., ‘The rise of megacities – interactive’, The Guardian, 4 October 2012,
(47) Adeyemo, A., ‘Nigerian architect, Kunle Adeyemi brings hope to Makoko slum with the Floating School Project’, Bella Naija, 3 October 2012,
(48) Ibid.
(49) ‘The South African Homeless People’s Federation, South Africa’, September 2005,
(50) Ibid.
(51) Ibid.
(52) Ibid.
(53) Shack/Slum Dwellers International website,
(54) Ibid.
(55) Savchuk, K., ‘Innovative funding model allows urban poor to determine their own future’, The Guardian, 8 October 2012,
(56) Ibid.


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