Affordable housing can’t be on wish list for ever

The construction industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in Rwanda today, growing at a pace not seen before in the history of this country. It is easily noticeable because it is very visible and employs a large army of people.

The construction industry is one of the fastest growing sectors in Rwanda today, growing at a pace not seen before in the history of this country. It is easily noticeable because it is very visible and employs a large army of people.

The ongoing construction falls into several categories: office buildings, commercial premises, hotels and restaurants, and high end residential houses.

The benefits of this boom are many. It creates thousands of jobs, on the sites and eventually within the completed establishments. The skills demand of the industry leads to increased training of Rwandans to take on these jobs. It also creates demands for a lot of local materials. Finally, it makes the country a competitive destination for visitors and investors.

However, housing for the lower middle class and low income earners (often called affordable housing) has not moved at a similar pace, if at all. And yet this is a big section of the population.

Urban areas are growing fast, fed by an increasing rural-urban flow. This flow will increase with more education, more industrialisation and overall prosperity. You cannot stem it by legislation or backward policies like ‘return to the village’. This growing population needs jobs and shelter.

So far, urban authorities have been generally successful in checking the growth and spread of unplanned settlements, variously known as slums, shanty towns or akajagari (plural: utujagari) in Kinyarwanda. But it will be difficult to hold their development in check for long if appropriate housing is not available.

That it has not been done now is not because no one is thinking about this section of the population or doubts the urgency for decent and affordable housing. Successive Kigali City administrations have always made this one of their priorities. Rwandan authorities have actually agonised over it for a long time. They went further and made tours of other countries to learn how others do it. But not much has resulted from these tours.

Indeed, President Paul Kagame has shown frustration with government officials for spending a lot of time and resources on study tours outside the country but do not translate that experience into houses. Apparently, they go, return and report what they have seen and it ends there, until another study tour is undertaken.

Hopefully, and with the president’s chiding, all the necessary study tours have been done, useful experiences and practices gained and gathered into plans, and what remains is building.

There is no reason why this cannot be done. Precedents exist.

The first, and still ongoing, is the model of houses government is building in the integrated model villages across the country to resettle vulnerable people and those living in high risk areas. What’s more, they have been built at reasonable cost. The only thing now is to adapt the model to an urban setting.

The second is a type of housing that has been built before. More than a decade ago, many families were relocated from akajagari in lower Kiyovu (at the time known as the Kiyovu of the poor, to distinguish it from its more affluent neighbour across the road on the upper side) to Batsinda in Gasabo District and resettled in houses much better than what they had lived in before.

For some reason no more such houses were built. If there was any dissatisfaction with them or defects, or any other reasons, they should have been addressed and corrected.

Then there was the low-cost house built entirely from local and affordable materials developed by the then Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), now the College of Science and Technology of the University of Rwanda. We were even shown samples. No one has heard of or seen that type of house since then. What happened?

Today, there are industries based here in Rwanda producing building materials locally. There is no doubt that like all sensible business ventures they seek to maximise profits and must be looking at the high end construction business. But it is also possible to make money by investing in the production of materials for more affordable houses.

It is about time affordable housing was achieved and stopped being a perennial wish. The alternative is akajagari and that would be moving backwards, out of step with our forward march to a better standard of life for all.

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