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Malawi Wants to Build Africa’s First 3D Printed Buildings

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A group in Malawi wants to build Africa’s first 3D printed buildings. A LafargeHolcim and CDC joint venture, 14Trees, will use a COBOD BOD2 3D printer to build housing and schools. Initial testing allowed them to build the walls of one demo building in 14 hours and another in 18. On the back of possible success in Malawi, 14Trees wants to roll out the technology in Zimbabwe and Kenya.

Since LafargeHolcim is one of the world’s largest cement companies and the COBOD printer has so far performed well, this team really does have a great opportunity to spread 3D printing across the African continent. 14Trees also seems like a very laudable company, whose aim is to accelerate affordable housing in Africa.

Miljan Gutovic, Region Head Middle East Africa LafargeHolcim, said of the project, “I am very excited about the work of our joint venture 14Trees, innovating in 3D printing technology to accelerate affordable and sustainable building, from homes to schools. This is a great example of our commitment to build for people and the planet. Starting in Malawi, we will deploy this technology across the broader region with projects already in the pipeline in Kenya and Zimbabwe.”

 Henrik Lund-Nielsen, Founder and General Manager of COBOD, said, “We are very encouraged by the fact, that 14Trees now has brought our technology to beneficial use in Africa, and we are impressed by the speed they manage to achieve for the printing of the walls of the first buildings. Although already impressive, we are confident that we will see a further improvement in this as more buildings are being 3D printed. The shortage of affordable housing and schools in Africa is overwhelming and we do believe, that our technology can play a vital role in solving this, not at least by increasing the speed of execution. We have pledged our full support to LafargeHolcim and 14Trees in their endeavors and look forward to our continued cooperation with these fantastic organizations”.

The third partner is CDC, the UK’s development finance firm that helps invest in companies that aid the poor. Tenbite Ermias, CDC Managing Director for Africa, stated:

“The rollout of 14Trees’ world-class, cutting-edge technology is going to have a tremendous developmental impact on Malawi and the wider region. It is a wonderful example of how we are investing in businesses that can support the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.”

I really do like that these organizations are working together to bring additive construction to Africa. Also, they do mention that they will be training locals to do the work, so that’s fantastic. I believe that with many things there is a real chance for African firms to learn from the industrialized world’s mistakes and leapfrog it in many areas. When I lived in Argentina, the phone system went from creaky old lines laid by the English to mobile in just a few years, so I know that this is possible.

I also do believe that 3D printing can play a huge role in developing resource-deprived regions and in helping to turn rubble, local sand or other local materials into housing. By gathering local material, especially that of old build sites, and recycling it we could come up with a truly sustainable way of 3D printing structures. At the same time, I can imagine that operating a construction 3D printer in Africa could be very challenging. But, if they manage to successfully and cost-effectively 3D print buildings there, then your own local country can no longer say it’s impossible.

What I’m uncertain of is if cement really is the building material of the future. When I lived in Bahrain, it would routinely become 45 or 50°C in the summer. But we all had colds because we lived in air-conditioning. I was amazed when, on a school trip to a local fishing village, Muharraq, I saw the thick-walled local houses with their wind towers for the first time. One of them, the Isa bin Ali House, was a beautiful structure and all of the old buildings were so cool and comfortable inside, just using four-sided wind towers.

Sometimes, the old solutions are far more sustainable than the new. Similarly, Malawi’s vernacular architecture is far from perfect, but it is built using local materials and is infinitely more sustainable than cement and concrete, which are some of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gasses. It does not make sense to introduce new technology to a developing country if it will be more wasteful and destructive than the technology that they have been using. Just like I would not like my next home to destroy the planet more than my current one, so should all of us.

Look, I think it’s great that you’re bringing the latest technology and training to Africa. And 3D printing lots of buildings and schools in Malawi, Kenya and Zimbabwe is a hell of a challenge for a firm to undertake. I wish you a lot of luck and success with those challenges. But, LafargeHolcim had a global cumulative CO2 emissions of over 2 billion tonnes until 2013. The idea that the path to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals is a concrete one is patently ridiculous. If we’d 3D print all of the houses in the same unsustainable concrete, we’d have to develop gills to live in them. It would be far better for 3D printed housing projects to use sustainable materials that are locally sourced and carbon neutral or with little greenhouse gas impact. That would be a lovely business for 14Trees to get into instead. What does 14Trees mean actually, is it the amount of trees that you’d have to plant per second to offset your own emissions?

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