Cameroon: Using the age-old ‘building from mud’ construction technique for greener homes
In 2005, Messina Guikome took the decision to quit her job as a flight attendant in France to go back to school to qualify as a civil engineer. Her construction company Messibat International, founded in 2007, first won contracts working with conventional building materials in Cameroon, and then, in 2016, it started focusing on eco-homes using the age-old rammed earth technique of utilising natural raw materials such as earth, chalk, lime or gravel. Today, the company is registered and operating in Cameroon, Togo and Ghana, while also having a presence in the UK and France.
Using the eco-building technique, the construction of a one-bedroom house takes only three to four weeks and cuts costs for the customer by almost 40%.
We talk to her about the challenges of building a construction business in Cameroon and convincing customers to convert to eco-friendly construction materials.
How did you start Messibat International?
After finishing my studies in 2007, I was working in construction and living in London. I decided to go on holiday in my native Cameroon. I fell in love with this “Africa in miniature”, it is such a country of opportunities. (Cameroon is often called “Africa in miniature” due to its diverse landscapes that represent the continent’s major climatic zones.)
When I returned to Europe, I decided to leave my job in London and return firstly to France, where I grew up and studied, to establish my company Messibat International.
In 2008 I made the decision to return to Cameroon to create a subsidiary of Messibat, with the aim of building affordable and ecological housing.
I have been campaigning for the recovery and use of local, sustainable materials in building – such as clay, laterite, gravel, bamboo, wood and stone – since then. I believe that using this material can help to overcome the housing challenges in sub-Saharan Africa.
Housing is a key social need. Nevertheless, almost half of the population in Africa are surviving under precarious housing conditions. To house themselves, families often have no other choice but to raid their limited healthcare, food and education budgets to purchase expensive and imported materials for housing.
I also wanted a construction method without cement because it is actually toxic in our tropical climates. It combines with heat and moisture to create very poor indoor air quality.
Explain how your eco-buildings differ from normal buildings?
We are essentially building homes from mud, using a 21st-century technique that leverages the power of bioclimatic design – designing buildings based on local climate and making use of solar energy and other environmental sources. Our concept relies on “rammed earth”, the name for this modern iteration of building with mud. The construction is as strong as concrete and can last thousands of years. In fact, parts of the Great Wall of China are built with rammed earth and it is still standing today.
We decided to use this design and method because of the ecological impact of concrete production. Cement accounts for about 6% to 7% of the entire planet’s carbon emissions and its production is also very resource intensive. We wanted to design buildings that are in harmony with their climate and culture. Local, sustainable materials just made more sense.
Originally it was difficult to convince the public in Cameroon to build houses from mud and earth. In Africa, building with earth is perceived as a synonym for poverty. For my first project using this technique, I had to build an exhibition house to convince people that the house is durable and non-toxic, along with having a zero-carbon footprint.
We can deliver a modern, maintenance-free, well-appointed one-bedroom home with plumbing, wiring, fixtures and all – for as little as $5,000. It only takes three weeks to construct and is 30% to 40% cheaper.
Which of the countries where you operate, currently offer the best opportunities?
Most of my clientele in Cameroon are expatriates. Previously, before starting with eco-housing, and with the networking assistance of the French business association in Cameroon, I was involved with traditional construction projects for larger companies such as Total and Orange Telecoms.
Today we focus on eco-housing and have just signed a partnership agreement with GM Bamboo Eco-City Ltd in Ghana to implement the Bamboo Eco-City Project. Ghana provides great opportunities at the moment. The political climate is stable, and it caters for investors. We are launching a funding round to raise $5 million to enable the realisation of the Eco-City project in Ghana.
We have also signed a contract with the Togolese government for the construction of an eco-neighbourhood. The land has been made available in Lomé and the original commitment is to build ten houses, with the possibility for many more. The neighbourhood is going to be autonomous in terms of energy with solar panels included. Elements like double-flush toilets and energy-saving bulbs come standard.
These larger projects offer great opportunities for Messibat International.
Is it easy to convince people of this new way of building?
No, unfortunately not at all. Partly because there is still a lack of information about our construction technique, and also due to a lack of education or perhaps at least a lack of curiosity from the population and communities. A large part of the population still has the perception that construction in cement represents luxury and a “high-class status”, which is completely wrong.
Who is your target market?
We aim for all the income sectors – low, middle and high – and we have private and public interest and contracts.
What are the biggest challenges facing Cameroon currently?
There is a lack of support for entrepreneurs, especially for women entrepreneurs. The lack of financing support for innovators is also concerning. I only started with eco-housing in 2016 because I had to save money to reinvest into this part of the business. The banks did not provide financing. I unfortunately also experienced the challenge of corruption when I first started out.
In the beginning, I had to overcome judgement because I was considered a foreigner, having grown up between Marseille, London and Chicago. I suffered severe financial scams and at one stage found myself close to ruin, but I refused to go back to Europe.