Lawyer, historian, serial entrepreneur and founder of Cygnet Properties Ltd. eco-sustainable building solutions and management company, Akin Sanda is a man who is passionate about creating sustainable solutions. In 2008, he partnered up with his brother Debo Sanda to create a renewable energy distribution company that imported solar and wind power solutions to Nigeria; according to him, the business was unsustainable because “the market wasn’t ready for it.”

It was not until late 2014 that the brothers found a project that they could sink their teeth into, when they became the licensees for the South African company House of Sand for sandbag construction for Nigeria and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) region. “I was looking for alternative building technologies, so I went to an exhibition on renewable energy and I met two gentlemen [who told me about sandbag construction]. I had seen earth bags but had not looked at the possibility of replicating it in Nigeria,” explains Akin Sanda.

Sanda explains that, although construction centered on sandbags is recognized as a legitimate building method in South Africa, its reach has been largely limited. “The first sandbag house was built in South Africa 20-25 years ago and it is still standing,” he says. “But they never looked at this as an affordable housing scheme there. They have done some affordable housing, but it has predominantly been for rich clientele looking for something different. They have never looked at it the way that we are looking at it here, [which is] as a solution for housing deficit.”

Courtesy of Cygnet Properties Ltd.

Courtesy of Cygnet Properties Ltd.

“We aim to use this technology to bridge the gap by providing affordable housing for low and middle income earners, particularly those who have been largely underserved in the market…We are not precluding ourselves from looking at the higher income, but our target is to create access to clean energy and access to affordable housing,” he explains.

Sanda, who was one of the top five finalists of Chivas Regal’s The Venture competition in Nigeria, explains that the West African country has a housing deficit that is estimated to be upward of 17 million units; the deficit is centered largely in urban areas like Lagos in the southwest, the capital Abuja, the southern oil city of Port Harcourt, and Kano in the north. “Our data analysis in Nigeria is not as robust as you find in many parts of the world, so everything is based on estimation,” he explains, noting that, while Lagos’ official census puts the city’s population at 11 million, unofficial numbers put it closer to 20 million. The variances are just a small indication of the lack of data on everything from people to housing needs in the Nigerian market.

“Lagos is believed to have a housing deficit of about five million units because it is one of the most densely populated areas in the southwest,” explains Sanda. And while the mega-city accounts for 40% of the West African country’s electricity consumption and its economic activities account for 60% of Nigeria’s economic growth, the construction industry remains largely concentrated around high net worth commercial buildings and expensive residential units, with little investment going toward affordable homes or social housing projects.

Sanda explains that, although the government has attempted to create PPPs for low-income housing, most low-income housing remains unaffordable, meaning that the market remains largely underserved. This has resulted in the rapid expansion of slums, the most famous of which, Makoko, has a population that is estimated to be anywhere between 40,000 and 300,000.

One of the ways in which Sanda is attempting to reinvent solutions to deal with the housing crisis is by finding mechanisms for joint venture ownership, whereby landowners and developers would be able to partner up and share the profits generated by the units.

Although the company is still at the late incubation phase, with just a prototype to show for its efforts, they have already managed to get the interest of the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies (EDGE), whom Sanda sees as key partners to legitimize his process. And while the design and construction certification come with a price tag he believes that this “stamp of approval” will go a long way towards bolstering the company’s credibility in the local market.

It is his insistence on ensuring that his building methods are locally recognized as unique that has led him to test their prototype sandbag house and register their own patent in Nigeria, in spite of the added costs.

“A lot of people are skeptical about things they don’t know anything about. When we started to build, people told us we are building a chicken shed that will fall down. But now, those same people are asking us to come and rent our studio apartment. That’s the way things work here.”

Eco-Friendly Building Solutions

Sandbag houses are designed to have three key components, the first being a frame of Ecobeam – which is comprised of timber and metal beams that make up the framework for the walls. Next, sand-filled polypropylene bags are stacked between these beams, and finally, the beams are cladded with wire mesh and plaster, timber or plasterboard. The completed structure is waterproof, fire resistant and soundproof; more importantly, the structures have a high thermal mass, which makes them cool in the summer and warm in the winter, owing to the millions of small air spaces between the grains of sand.

Courtesy of Cygnet Properties Ltd.

Courtesy of Cygnet Properties Ltd.

Courtesy of Cygnet Properties Ltd.

Courtesy of Cygnet Properties Ltd.

Sanda notes that the building method lowers construction costs by 20%, and reduces the amount of time required to build a unit. Most importantly, sandbag construction promises to have a lower carbon footprint.

One of the team’s priorities is to ensure that most if not all of their materials are locally sourced. It is here that the team has its greatest challenge: polypropylene bags must be imported in Nigeria, where foreign currency is expensive and hard to come by. “All the other materials we use for the sandbag construction are produced locally, so we also intend to start producing the bags locally.”

By coupling its Ecobeam Sandbag Building Technology (ESBT) with renewable energy solutions for the homes, the company promises to create more affordable, ecofriendly buildings with a significantly lower carbon footprint. The budding company promises to build eight units of one bedroom apartments and 28 units of two bedroom apartments – all with solar PV panels – in Ogombo, Lagos, pending EDGE certification.

Sanda explains that owners can get involved in the process of building the homes themselves once the beams are set in place, as filling and stacking sandbags does not require skilled labor – potentially reducing labor costs. More importantly, much of the sand used in the process can be obtained on site. The light weight of the construction materials means that they can be transported more easily to areas without adequate roads, and on-site construction requires no mechanical or electricity, since no equipment is used, making it easier to build in remote areas.

Through his sandbag construction method, Sanda hopes to create more than just permanent homes for those who cannot afford to buy houses in cities like Lagos and Abuja; the program entails vocational training and job creation as well.

“Construction draws in a lot of employment opportunities, from people who provide food and drinks, to the masons and others. So what we want to do is to train people and create other licensees within the territory – we want to create a value chain for the whole system within the local economy. We want to create people who can supply the beams, maybe people who can supply the bags, etc.,” he explains.

“We aim to use this technology to bridge the gap by providing affordable housing for low and middle income earners, particularly those who have been largely underserved in the market…Our target is to create access to clean energy and access to affordable housing,” he adds.