In view of the high cost of cement, government once again explores alternative building materials, but whether this will deliver mass housing to Nigerians is still in the realm of conjecture
Over the years, Nigerians have been agonising over the high cost of cement, which has curtailed their hope of building houses. But government is striving to rekindle the hope of these Nigerians, or so it says. If all goes well, these Nigerians would be able to build their houses with ease soon. Danladi Matawal, director-general, Nigerian Building and Road Research Institute, NBRRI, who made this known recently said the agency was developing a cheaper alternative cement which would reduce the cost of building and ensure housing for all in no distant time.
According to Matawal, “The alternative cement basically is a product of waste and environmentally polluting items like rice husk ash, groundnut husk ash, volcanic ash, among others. It is being regenerated for alternative cement using appropriate procedures.” The alternative cement is being tested by the agency, whose responsibility is to develop standard building technology for quality roads and housing construction in the country, and would be made available to Nigerians after certification. But Nigerians would not have to wait for long to access the affordable cement as the agency has assured that the technology to make housing affordable would be available next year.
Going by NBRRI’s calculation, a three-bedroom bungalow could be built with N1.5 million. This would be a drastic reduction from N3.5 million to N5 million, which is the present cost of such building less the cost of land and furnishing. In view of the acute shortage of accommodation in both urban and rural areas of the country and the yearnings of the people to build their own houses, Nigerians should be celebrating this ‘breakthrough.’
The ever-increasing cost of cement has always been responsible for the inability of Nigerians to own houses, as cement constitutes 35 per cent to 45 per cent of the building materials used for building construction. But the price of cement has increased by over 200 per cent since 1999 when it sold for N500 per 50-kilogramme, kg, bag. A 50kg bag of cement now sells for between N2,500 and N3,000 depending on the location. Even cement manufacturers in the country have tried to crash the spiralling price of cement but could not, due to the high cost of production and transportation. This unfortunate situation has kept cement out of the reach of most Nigerians, 70 per cent of whom are classified as living below the poverty threshold.
This situation may justify the search for an alternative to cement but experts believe that no alternative can displace cement as the choice material for construction because of the availability of the raw materials used for its production and the fact that it is produced in the country thereby generating direct and indirect employments for millions of Nigerians. Cement is currently used in between 90 per cent and 95 per cent of building construction in the country as against other parts of the world where close substitutes like bricks are used for the construction of residential and office apartments. Its local production dates back to 1957 when three plants were inaugurated by the then regional governments of Eastern, Midwestern, and Northern Nigeria. Through privatisation, the ownership of these plants have since been transferred to private concerns and new ones have joined the industry. Yet the supply gap is still wide despite the increase in total capacity to about 20 million tonnes per annum.
If cement, which is manufactured with limestone, sand, shale, clay, and iron ore – raw materials that are available in abundance in the country – is to be de-emphasised in favour of the alternative cement advocated by NBRRI for mass housing especially for the low-income earners, would the move address the housing deficit in the country? This is one question that the work done so far may not be able to provide an answer to. But Matawal is convinced that it is the appropriate response to the quest of providing housing for all in the foreseeable future.
Research on rice husk and other agricultural waste is not a recent study pioneered by NBRRI. Many countries around the world have done this research many decades ago and adopted it to suit their environment. In Nigeria, a lot of research has also been done, especially by the academia. For instance, two lecturers, E. B. Oyetola and Bala Abdullahi of the Department of Civil Engineering, Federal University of Technology, Minna, Niger State, produced rice husk ash in 2006 by using charcoal from burning firewood. The ash was then mixed with ordinary Portland Cement to produce blocks. However, they found that the compressive strength of the block decreases with increasing rice husk ash and, therefore, arrived at an optimum replacement level of 20 per cent. To the researchers, producing rice husk ash is an effective way of utilising the otherwise agricultural waste thus reducing its nuisance value. But beyond that, “the rice husk ash as a partial replacement for cement will provide an economic use of the byproduct and consequently produce cheaper blocks for low cost buildings,” they stated.
In major rice producing countries like India, Thailand and China, the technology utilising rice husk has been developed and applied. India, for instance, produces about 20 million tonnes of rice husk in a year, some of which is used as fuel in the boilers for processing paddy. The ash produced, which is said to be finer than cement, is also used for concrete mixes to produce blocks. But some experts have cautioned that rice husk cement should be used for joinery, plastering, stabilised bricks, and soil stabilisation, but not for roofing construction.
For an alternative to cement, rice may be a greener option as it is agriculture-based. But for the Nigerian environment, it could not be said to be the most viable option, at least for now. So, embarking on commercial production of rice husk ash for cement, to many, amounts to putting the cart before the horse. Firstly, Nigeria is not yet recognised as a rice producing country as it spends N356 billion to import rice yearly. The local producers of rice do not generate the quantity of husk to sustain a low-cost cement industry. The ones generated by rice producers are usually used as fuel. Also it is not clear if cement produced with rice husk ash would lead to any substantial reduction in price, given the low 20 per cent addition and the additional cost of producing the ash.
Stakeholders in the building industry have suggested that rather than waste resources on an unviable path to providing houses for the low-income earners, efforts should be made to utilise laterite which is equally abundant but cheaper. Laterite precedes cement and has been used all over the world as an alternative to cement. The modern users mix laterite with a little quantity of cement to make bricks that are said to be very durable.
Rufus Akinrolabu, former president, Building Materials Producers Association of Nigeria, BUMPAN, and managing director, Bolyn Construction Company Limited, is of the view that laterite is the best alternative to cement in Nigeria. According to him, using a little cement with laterite would bring down the cost of building. Akinrolabu who lives in a house constructed with laterite argued that “rice has been there and rice husk ash has been there. And we have not even planted enough rice for people to eat not to talk of removing the husk in enough quantity to use for cement. There are many alternative building materials available worldwide but whether they are practicable is another issue,” he said.
James Aguwa, a lecturer, Department of Civil Engineering, Federal University of Technology, Minna, who has conducted a research on laterite-cement block, recommends its use as walling materials “because it has better engineering properties and more economical with a saving of 30 per cent per square metre of wall when compared with the use of sandcrete blocks.” Making a case for the use of laterite cement as low-cost alternative building material, he noted that modern builders add a little quantity of cement to the laterite and the result is laterite blocks with adequate comprehensive strength.”
Akinrolabu who was a member of the now defunct Presidential Committee on the Alleviation of Housing Deficit recalled that all the work the committee did on alternative building materials from which a white paper was produced and a standard set by the Standard Organisation of Nigeria, SON, has been abandoned by the federal government which is now searching for solution in rice husk which is not yet available in any significant quantity in the country.
All over the world, housing has been recognised as the second basic need after food. The United Nations Human Rights Charter recognises the right of every citizen in the world to housing. Nigeria’s constitution and National Housing Policy also affirm this right but successive governments in Nigeria, over the years, do not appear to have been paying adequate attention to the citizens’ rights to housing. Recent statistics indicate that Nigeria still has a housing deficit of about 17 million against a population estimated to be about 167.9 million by the National Population Commission. Experts posit that the staggering figure is even an underestimation considering the millions of families that are homeless and the over 70 per cent who live in subhuman condition because they cannot afford decent housing. The fact that the country’s population is growing at an annual rate of 5.6 million is an indication that the housing need of the country is on the high side.
Nigerians are scandalised that after more than six decades of nationhood, the country is still unable to solve the accommodation needs of its citizens. Past governments have confronted this nagging problem by devising various programmes and policies to address it, all to no avail. These have been identified as public land ownership, building subsidised estates, housing loan schemes, establishment of housing corporations and Federal Mortgage Bank of Nigeria, FMBN, National Housing Policy, National Housing Fund, NHF, among others.
But all these have not delivered housing to the increasingly impoverished Nigerians. Even when subsidised estates are constructed for the low-income earners, they end up in the hands of the rich and government officials in charge of allocation who in turn let them out to people. Can rice husk and other alternative building materials help to address the housing deficit issue? Stakeholders express different views.
Gimba Kumo, who disclosed that government would require $30 million (N4.65 billion) and build additional 60 million housing units to be able to meet the housing needs of Nigerians admitted recently that the bank has not been able to meet the housing needs of the people but blamed the Central Bank of Nigeria, CBN, for failure to pay its equity contribution to NHF. Jacques Troost, executive director, Stanbic IBTC, who puts the country’s housing deficit at 15 million suggests that mortgage financing as the way out. Ezekiel Etok, an architect, recommends the provision of social housing as different from mass housing as the way out.
This appears to be the position of Ama Pepple, minister of lands, housing and urban development when she urged FMBN to consider social housing scheme to provide decent and affordable accommodation to Nigerians. Pepple said government would require N60 trillion to fix the housing deficit in the country. Perhaps what is being advocated is a social housing scheme in the mould of former Lagos State governor Lateef Jakande’s mass housing programme, which is yet to be surpassed in the country 27 years after and which truly delivered housing to the low-income earner.
Most of the supposedly housing schemes for the low-income earners are usually beyond their reach, which is why Akinrolabu suggests that government should rather empower the people to be able to build their houses rather than building and allocating. Some have also stressed the fact that if government could fix the country’s dilapidated infrastructure, especially the rail system and roads, provide the gas and electricity for the indigenous manufacturers of cement, the product would become less expensive.
Nigerians still recall the Presidential Committee on the Alleviation of Housing Deficit of the regime of Olusegun Obasanjo which was meant to deliver affordable housing to Nigerians. Obasanjo had given NBRRI and other stakeholders the mandate to construct 500 units of housing in all the states’ capitals including Abuja using local building materials. This initiative would have delivered houses to 18,500 families but the programme was aborted. This perhaps explains why Nigerians are not excited about government’s avowed commitment to developing alternative building material to combat the rising cost of cement and make houses affordable. So to them, once bitten, many times shy.