“The blocks are made with natural add, which is abundantly available all over the world,” says Alpha Omar Jallow, the construction manager at Earthworks Construction. “In The Gambia we have the right material, the right soil, to do compressed stabilised add.” The “add” is the cement or lime used to stabilise the mix of soil.
Earthworks Construction is an offshoot company of the Sandele Eco Retreat near Kartong, a village in the south west of the country. Many of its buildings were made from the Compressed Stabilised Earth Brick (CSEB). The resort is nestled in the forest by a beach and aims to offer visitors upmarket lodgings with minimal environmental impact.
Sandele was originally developed in 2004 and the owners wanted to find the best sustainable design and techniques for construction. Jallow researched the CSEB technique and then visited India for a course. It gave him further instruction on producing the blocks.
Report: Innovative compressed earth bricks boost Gambia's construction industry
“The key thing is the block itself - how it is manufactured,” says Jallow. “It needs to be made properly and then cured - this is key, this is the key essence.” The blocks are produced using a metal machine applying pressure - a huge lever compresses the mix and the blocks are left to cure under plastic tarps. They do not need firing in a kiln, so you remove the need to burn material to cure them.
The construction manager says the big advantage is the sourcing of the materials. “It's abundantly available and its local, so it depends how you plan ahead.” He built a reception hall, dining area, several different types of lodges as well as staff quarters. The resort is extensive and blends into the trees lining the coastline.
The buildings made from these blocks have a distinctive rusty, red colour from the local earth. The lodges also avoid corrugated iron roofs and ceilings are constructed in a domed or vaulted fashion.
“You can acquire all the materials - 90 per cent of materials - to build your structure within your locality,” says Jallow. “The maintenance of it is very minimal, it's not like with sand and cement.”
Jallow says the bricks themselves have been tested for tensile strength and are just as strong as the typical bricks or blocks. They can also be manufactured in different sizes depending on the needs of the project.
Putting out the word about compressed bricks
The Sandele eco resort is somewhat of an isolated example in the architecture of buildings across The Gambia. Most do not have the distinctive earthy colour and are constructed using blocks and materials that need to be transported to the development site.
But through promoting and supporting the work of Jallow and Earthworks Construction, it is hoped compressed blocks could become a more permanent fixture in the construction industry.
The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) is partnering with Jallow to train young people to learn how to manufacture the bricks and build with them. YEP is funded by the EU’s Emergency Trust Fund for Africa and is a project implemented by the International Trade Centre.
YEP hopes to create more employment and opportunities for young Gambians. And it sees the CSEB technique as being something it can help step up through support. Earthworks Construction has already built an entire resort in Sandele. It also has space for an area where the block-making machine is housed and bricks left to cure.
Through this initiative, YEP sent 14 young people for a two week course in India - following in Jallow’s footsteps, learning about the compressed blocks. They learnt the basic techniques to manufacture the bricks. These new experts could then come back home and practice the method with Jallow at Sandele.
“I think introducing this technology, once we get the idea and the ways of doing it, we are going to decentralise it,” says Sheikh Wadda, a 29-year-old building contractor and participant in the Indian course.
Wadda hopes to convince clients to use this method instead of transporting bricks and iron for future construction projects. He also talks of YEP’s plan to buy five more compressed brick machines for similar facilities across the country.
“There is one already in place for the Greater Banjul region,” says the young builder. “By next year we will have other machines in various regions, whereby we will go and train different regions.”
Each block-making machine costs about 10,000 USD. The idea is that it helps minimise the use of environmental resources as well as create employment for people to make the blocks or bricks. The technique is very specialised, especially with the more advanced ceilings.
Bakary Njie, a 27-year-old independent builder, sees the potential cost savings as a big advantage for home builders. It supposed to be cheaper per square metre than sand and cement.
“Many of the Gambians are middle income earners or low income earners,” says Njie, who completed the same course as his fellow builder Wadda. “Using cement and sand to build its more expensive than using these compress-stabilised add blocks.”
Both Njie and Wadda describe a mini-construction boom in The Gambia at the moment. More than a year since former strongman leader Yahya Jammeh gave way to the democratically elected government, many Gambians in the diaspora have returned home. Some of them want to build new homes in the country they left behind during Jammeh’s rule.
The builders will be part of YEP’s plans to create a group of trainers who can go out and advocate for this method, eventually creating different blocking-making sites across The Gambia.
“It's really changing our perspective of how we see designing and constructing in Gambia,” says Njie. He and Wadda will be attending another final advanced course in India where they will learn about the techniques required for creating the domed and vaulted ceilings.
Once a certain scale is reached with the number of practitioners, YEP believes this construction technique could take off. The CSEB method for construction is already being used in other African countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana and Nigeria.
YEP is hoping that through support of this technique, taking the work of Jallow and Earthworks Construction to the next level, it can spark a construction revolution in The Gambia. At the very least it wants to help create more opportunities for young people through learning about the environmentally friendly compressed brick.
Reporting assignment supported by the International Trade Centre