Poverty is no news to Africa: actually the poverty porn dominates media frames about the continent. What is new however, is the rising tide of innovation and creativity. From Cairo to Cape Town, Lagos to Lusaka, some are silently working for change, carving a niche and retelling a sordid narrative punctuated by wars, poverty and famine. Just as African mobile networks are transforming the way commerce operates, architects are also giving rein to their imagination. It was therefore heart-warming having a chat with Chiagozie Fred Nwonwu, a Lagos-based Nigerian writer, about his recent visit to Makoko and his impressions about the Makoko’s new floating school.
Makoko, a slum in Lagos State, Nigeria, was partially demolished last year by the government – drawing public ire. However, from this apparently hapless city, springs forth an innovative green architectural solution that grants hope to the hopeless. The Makoko Floating School designed by NLÉ Architects with sponsoring from the United Nations Development Programme and Heinrich Boell Foundation.
Chiagozie attended at a local workshop last year, where participants were encouraged to come up with innovative ideas to solve local climate-change problems. “Makoko was one of three communities in Lagos that were identified as to be in great need of the type of interventions the workshop aimed to propose.”
But this was not the usual talk shop seminar, where “experts” without a grasp of local problems were ferried across the seas to propose top-down solutions. Chiagozie asserts that: “The floating school project is actually the brainchild of Kunle Adeyemi, who also worked as a resource person at the Heinrich Boll Open Space Workshop.”
Asides Kunle’s professional expertise, as an architect, he also has a perspective of Makoko’s peculiar environmental and cultural nuances. As such it made it easier for the collaboration in morphing this innovation from a dream to reality. “The major drive was to ensure that the building method already existing in the target community is utilized as much as possible.” Chiagozie explains further that: “As such, wood was the primary building material. This stems from the fact that investigation of the existing buildings in Makoko proved that they have a lifespan that exceeds fifty years, not withstanding that they were wooden structures. Kunle currently works with NLE, so I guess that made it easy for him to get that superb collaborations that went into building this. I know for a fact that the float design had the input of submarine experts and that the structural design was put through the most thorough digital model and live model tests that were required to ensure that it is a viable venture.”
This fusion of locality, expertise and creativity obviously accounts why Kunle choose to start with a school and later spread this innovation to individual slit homes. Chiagozie elaborates: “While, Kunle Adeyemi actually envisioned a floating town, with houses like the floating school replacing the existing stilt houses in Makoko. The choice of a school as a start was made with practicability in mind: instead of building one house for personal use, why not build a public structure that will be open to everyone and visible enough to attract the right kind of attention. The school is the perfect start, from there they can have a police post, a court and it grows from there. About sustainability, this is silent but present in your question, think about tourism and resilience.”
Development is has more chances of success when it is driven by the people who will live with problems and are therefore anxious to effect a change. This has always been the kernel of disagreement that many have with interventions that are sealed in the comfort of aid agency headquarters in New York or Abuja for local communities thousands of kilometres away.
In the Makoko Floating School, community participation was of essence and “they are carried along every step of the way. In many cases, the inhabitants lead the way.” Chiagozie asserts that it was therefore not surprising that: “the people of Makoko are ecstatic about the new school, which is operational now, and are looking forward to more of such initiatives”.
The problem then seems not to be poverty but a dearth of innovation. “Does poverty entail having such and such amount of money to spend per day? Does it mean not having enough food to eat? Since African societies have at times past calculated wealth with the size of a man’s family, which is usually commensurate with the size of his yam barn, does modern wealth—calculated in terms of earning power and paper money—determine who is poor and who is rich?” Chiagozie gives an unusual response to his own questions: “I know that this may seem so and many will argue that it is so, but any time I enter Makoko I see the lie in that belief. For these people are not poor. Yes, they have what you might consider humble origins, but they are content with their lot and most lead the Spartan life they do by choice.”
But before we jump into the exclusive digital-utopian solution to all the problems facing the continent, Chiagozie caution is worth reproducing: “let me say that technology provides many answers, but not all. If well applied and for a worthy cause, technology may mean the difference between life and death for many.” The Nigerian writer advocates a middle ground: “like Kunle Adeyemi’s innovation showed, technology is not as alien as we think. Local technology, handed down over the years from parents to children, paired with modern technology could prove to be the catalyst that Africa needs. Yes, technology can provide the means to fight poverty and reduce it drastically, but can it end it? I doubt that very much. Alleviate it substantially? Yes!”