Sustainable Housing for Rural Families in Africa

by Association la Voute Nubienne (AVN)

We arrived in Boromo and were picked up by Seri, the Co-Founder of the Association la Voute Nubienne (AVN), and were given our first taste what the project does when we arrived at our hotel. The hotel, owned by Seri, was created as practice buildings when Association la Voute Nubienne was working with its first group of master masons. We were later taken to see a school, church, and house, which were built in a nearby community.

The organization takes a very organic approach. They have several cultural coordinators whose job it is go into villages and work with the communities to sensitize citizens to the benefits of the Nubian style houses with earthen roofs, which include minimizing deforestation for wood roofs, saving money from importing tin roofs, and the temperature control Nubian roofs provide. After some time, if at least 5 families show interest in having a house constructed, a team of five masons will be assembled. The masons are ranked by skill level, four being a master mason. There are always two, level-one masons on the team and they are people from the village where the house is being constructed whom are interested in learning the trade. Over time they work their way up the ranking, themselves becoming master masons and potentially starting work in a new village.

Irene, the Assistant Director of AVN, told us that the end goal is for there to no longer be a need for AVN, because as more people realize the benefits of these houses and demand grows, the number of masons will be expanding as well. This model is not only meant to spread more sustainable houses, but also create jobs for those interested in learning masonry. The organization has taken a sustainable approach to introducing a new style of superior architecture to help protect the environment and improve lives of citizens of Burkina Faso.

Sarah and four other In-the-Field Travelers visited more than 30 GlobalGiving projects in Mali, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Ghana. Follow their adventures at

Sister Grace
Sister Grace

I mentioned in my last Update in December that, through AVN-Belgium, we have launched a program in Zambia, in collaboration with the Belgian NGO, Abantu-Zambia. The program centres around the construction of VN houses in a cluster of sixteen villages in the Chibombo District, north of the capital, Lusaka.

This has now got off to a really good start. A local coordinator, Sister Grace (see photo) has volunteered to organise the program in the field; 65 potential clients for VN houses, and 18 potential VN masons, from nine villages, have been identified.

The first two villagers in the program, Christoper Phiri and Jaspan Moobela (see photo) arrived in Boromo, Burkina Faso, in mid-December, for a 5-month apprenticeship in vault construction. This is the first time they have been away from home, and it was no easy matter arranging passports, visas, and travel (bus to Lusaka, a plane to Addis Ababa, another plane to Ouagadougou, via Lomé, and a 3 hour bus journey to Boromo - altogether this took some 30 hours!).

They are learning fast, and will be returning to Zambia in May, accompanied by two Burkinabé master masons, to start a training and construction program in their villages.

By good fortune, Austin Hawkins, a young American on a J.Watson Fellowship studying earth architecture, has been spending a 10-week attachment to AVN in Boromo : Austin speaks excellent French, so he has been able to help interpret for Christopher and Jaspan, and he has also translated the VN masons' manuals into English for them. A real cultural mix, and for sure another positive aspect of the AVN adventure! You can see a video interview with Austin on our You Tube channel.

Village houses in Zambia are traditionally made of adobe walls with a conical grass thatch roof on timber beams (see photo); although these seem very picturesque, they have many drawbacks (the roofs are often infested with insects and termites, they have to be replaced every 2-3 years, they often catch fire, and it is the women in the family who are responsible for the drudgery of their maintenance). And, in any case, bush timber and grass is getting increasingly scarce, so many families have to resort to expensive, badly insulated, sheet metal and corrugated iron roofs, which only last a maximum of ten years anyway.

So, one can understand why so many villagers in the program area are keen to have VN houses with solid, safe, roofs which will keep their houses cool during the day, and cosy at night.

AVN-Belgium is raising funds to support this program: any contributions you might care to make will go towards this fund.

Thanking you once more for your support, Tony Kaye

Jaspan & Christopher arriving in Boromo
Jaspan & Christopher arriving in Boromo
Zambian village house
Zambian village house


A lot has happened at AVN since my last Update – it’s difficult to know where to start....

For sure, the international recognition for our work is growing by leaps and bounds:

(1) We were one of eleven “...outstanding finalists” for this year’s World Habitat Awards.

(2) The bid which we submitted to the World Bank’s Development Marketplace Competition on ‘Adaptation to Climate Change ‘ (DM2009) was one of the 26 projects which received funding at the Marketplace event in Washington DC this November (note that there were over 1700 submissions to this competition, and AVN’s was one of the 100 short-listed and invited to Washington); the prize funds will be used to match a similar grant from the French Ensemble Foundation, to trial our new strategy for scaling up the apprenticeship and construction Program (DPPV: Deployment of the Program from a Pilot Village). (3) AVN’s structure is being reinforced with the addition of a new offshoot: AVN-Belgium, which is now formally established there as a ‘not for profit’ NGO.

(4) AVN-Belgium’s first program, in collaboration with our team in Burkina Faso and with Abantu-Zambia, is scheduled over three years, and involves training of apprentices from Zambia in the VN technique in Burkina Faso, and the deployment of a team of VN masons from Burkina Faso to Zambia for 5 months each year, during the Zambian dry season (which, fortuitously, coincides with the rainy season in Burkina Faso); during the first three years of this program, it is planned to build about 70 houses in the construction zone of 6 villages, and to train 16 VN masons and 32 apprentices.

The other bit of good news is that we have been formally recognised by Global Giving as being a ‘green’ program. Soon, we hope to be able to provide accurate data on the carbon savings associated with the VN technique (as opposed to the alternatives of traditional Sahelian timber-based roofing, and ‘modern’ methods using concrete blocks, sawn timber joists, and sheet metal roofing). The assessment of the relative carbon footprint of VN housing is being carried out by for us pro bono by by staff in the London office of Environmental Resources Management (ERM), leading global experts in the field of environmental impact assessment.



The completed mosque in Mamarila-Sanogola
The completed mosque in Mamarila-Sanogola

This week sees the start of the holy month of Ramadan, so it seemed appropriate to bring you some news about the work of AVN in Mali, a predominantly Muslim country.

Championed by the local Imam and the religious community, the first VN mosque in Mali was built during the 2008/09 season, by the villagers of Mamarila-Sanogola (Koutiala district) under the supervision of VN masons from Boromo, Burkina Faso. It is composed of three main vaults, each 6m x 3m25, oriented North - South, and two smaller vaults and the minaret at first floor level. An external staircase gives access to the minaret and roof terrace. The workmanship is to a high standard, both for the basic structure (completed in 25 days), and the internal and external renderings and finishes (completed in a further 10 days). Furthermore, this building only cost 200 000 FCA (430$) in cash (mainly for salaries paid to the VN masons from Boromo) because the villagers themselves volunteered much of their time, skills, and labour, for brick-making, digging foundations, building, and rendering.

But the story does not stop here: far from it. When villagers began to realise that VN construction methods - as demonstrated by this mosque - were less costly than any other available alternative, and resulted in comfortable and safe buildings, the news quickly spread, During the 08/09 building season, a second mosque was started, and three houses built, in two neighbouring villages (Dendjola and M’Pébougou) - in the process 10 local apprentices were trained under the supervision of the masons from Boromo. These apprentices, now capable of building VN vaults on their own, already have orders for 13 houses and a third mosque in the original three villages, and - in seven other villages in the district - orders for 5 more houses, another mosque, and a school. Each of these projects will involve training of further local apprentices in the VN technique - a veritable snowball effect (however inappropriate this metaphor may seem for Mali’s torrid climate...).

What is happening in this cluster of 10 villages is a very successful example of AVN's 'pilot zone development program', in which a local champion (in this case the Imam of the first village) asks for an input from AVN - in the form of trained VN masons and construction advice - and persuades key members of the local community to support him. AVN, at this point, draws up an agreement with the local community for a four-year program of apprentice training and construction, and the program then takes off under its own steam. If succssful, the end result will be a significant number of VN buildings - houses and community-use ones such as schools, mosques, dispensaries - as well as a pool of trained VN masons who can then use their newly acquired skills to earn a living for themselves and their families, and provide economically accessible housing for clients in their villages.

Any donations you can provide at this time will be used to help develop and expand this pilot zone program to other rural communities in Mali and Burkina Faso.

Interior of the mosque
Interior of the mosque
Villagers outside the mosque site
Villagers outside the mosque site


Sheila Leonard is an intern at GlobalGiving. This summer she traveled throughout West Africa and visited a number of GlobalGiving projects. On May 27th she visited "Build Sustainable Housing for Families in Africa." When asked what she would tell her friends about this project, Sheila said: "Incredible: You need to see this!"

Arriving in Boromo, a village town an hour away from each of the main cities in Burkina, I was bombarded by offers to buy peanuts, tissue paper, and mangos. Pierre, my guide from France, helped translate my apologetic no’s to the millions of young children begging for my twenty cents. As we climbed in the car, flustered, I asked – am I supposed to buy things every time?? Should I have gotten something? – kindly Pierre responded, ahh, you cannot save every person this way.

Not only did it make me feel better, it reminded me of the power of development and projects with the Association la voute Nubienne’s sustainable housing project. Burkina Faso has two seasons - rainy and dry. May is the end of the dry season and the hottest time of the year (I mention this because that’s now, and I am here, and man is it hot!!). Before, families built homes from redwood right before the rainy season came and used the homes for shelter. By the time the next rainy season came, the house had deteriorated and the process had to begin anew. However, redwood has run out in many villages in Burkina Faso. It is now very expensive to access and families need another solution for housing. I appreciated this background because many times development workers bring in a solution WE think will work - but the "target group" has no understanding of its need or use for it – their traditional ways will suffice. Here though, it is clear a more long lasting solution, or any solution since the wood has run out, is needed.

The houses are called "vaults" and the team has a well thought out plan of construction and several designs available to potential home owners. All houses are built for good ventilation (it's hot) and usefulness, one bedroom, one kitchen, one living room, finito. We spent the day touring the local village to see houses they’ve created. Since I spent the last year engulfed in international development classes, I was eager to try and pinpoint an opportunity to see some o the many flaws we discuss in action. I can honestly say, I found none. The association has been working in the region for over ten years and through trial and error, has nearly perfected their work. As far as development goes they are hitting most of the successful ideas. The project is 1. Sustainable, 2. Employs members of the local community, 3. Teaches a skill (masonry), 4. Includes an incentive - people need to pay in to buy a house - and 5. Involves local people as much as possible. Many development projects suffer from poor maintenance - no one likes to fund upkeep! The association, however, focuses on creating easy maintenance and after hearing it mentioned over and over, I get the feeling they care about it a lot and have thought through the many possible solutions.

Pierre and his two workers drove me through the villages to see houses they’ve created. Because I don’t speak French, Pierre had to translate all communication for me…besides of course the Nasara!! (white person) screams from the children.

Although amazed by the in depth progress the Association has made, I wonder about how they reach the poorest Burkinabe, but then I remember - not everyone can do everything at once. I can’t save every child selling me food at the bus stop, nor can (or should) the association build a home for every family. Building well-made, sustainable, long-lasting, community centers is an excellent start to development and one I highly recommend supporting. This is a model project run by an incredibly well-organized that is making a dent in one area of development, the most we can ask of any project.

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Organization Information

Association la Voute Nubienne (AVN)

Location: Ganges, N/A - France
Project Leader:
Tony Kaye
Milton Keynes, n/a United Kingdom
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