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Status and Sustainability in Malawi

By Jon Twingi Sojkowski, Hastings Jolotie, and Simon Chimwaza

Malawi recently suffered severe floods, where, ironically, many of the homes destroyed were built using techniques that made the environment more susceptible to catastrophic flooding. In particular, the use of so-called burnt bricks—mud bricks that have been dried in a wood-fire kiln rather than the sun—has led to unprecedented rates of deforestation. Deforestation, or the elimination of vast swaths of forest, has increased the rate of surface runoff and subsequent water damage.

Homes damaged in the January 2015 floods in Malawi.

Despite this environmental reality, many locals believe that burnt bricks are sturdy materials. However, they both exacerbate the flooding problem and fair equally badly in the face of water damage.

Home construction in Malawi, as in many African countries, utilizes materials that are readily available. The main material used is mud, which is applied on reeds, bamboos, rammed earth, and the frames of wood. Mud is also molded into bricks, which are then either sun dried or burnt.

The majority of people in Malawi believe that burnt bricks are the superior material for the construction of walls. This is quite evident in the number of kilns one sees while traveling the country. In these kilns, bricks are stacked in a particular fashion with openings at the base. Wood is placed inside these openings, set afire, and then closed off. The heat contained within these kilns “burns” the bricks to make them durable.

Firewood is burnt in kilns to fashion burnt bricks for home construction. 

The trade off to using this material, however, is that it requires a large amount of wood to produce these bricks. According to Dr. Bernard Zingano, the director of Zingano and Associates, it takes 0.7 tons of firewood to create 1,000 bricks. However, since there is no way of monitoring the number of bricks burned, the amount of firewood used could be more than that. Using these estimates, one kiln could require up to seven tons of firewood. This translates to huge rates of deforestation.

The amount of wood needed for burnt bricks leads to deforestation. 

Furthermore, with increasing numbers of people involved in this business, the trend could worsen. The urban population growth is 4.2 percent annually, based on the 2010 United Nations Statistics Division data. Due to population growth and high levels of unemployment, many are in the business of making and burning bricks as a primary source of income.

Since burnt bricks are perceived as superior building materials, they carry a particular social status. This is reflected in an interesting feature in many rural homes where brick walls are plastered over except for one side, which is left bare. In many cases, the side wall is only plastered at the base and the top, leaving a band of uncovered bricks. The purpose of this detail is to show that the homeowner uses burnt bricks. In this sense, the bare wall is a “billboard” or a status symbol to indicate the wealth of the house and the homeowner.

Burnt brick sidings and billboards are often a sign of social status.  

The solution to problems of floods and deforestation is to improve home construction techniques. There is a need to apply principles of sustainable designs in home construction. One such technique could be the promotion of local materials, such as rammed earth, that do not destroy the environment and have been in use for many years. In Malawi, rammed earth construction is evident in many homesteads. Nonetheless, although rammed earth is a possible solution, the perception of the superior important of burnt bricks is an obstacle that prevents a successful transition to other home construction techniques. Without a change in social values, homes in Malawi will continue to be susceptible to environmental damage. 

A doorway demonstrating rammed earth construction. 

A home builder utilizes rammed earth techniques to construct a Malawi residence.

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Jon Twingi Sojkowski is a registered architect who is passionate about documenting vernacular architecture in Africa. Jon traveled to Malawi in 2014 to document vernacular architecture with his local team.

Hastings Jolotie is a GIS specialist, currently working with the Shire river basin flood management team in Malawi.

Simon Chimwaza is an urban planner, living and working in Lilongwe, Malawi.

[Photos by Jon Twingi Sojkowski and Hastings Jolotie]

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