#14 - Building in Africa: inclusive techniques and training

 Dossiers Construction21  hot climates  warm climate  subsaharan Africa  Voûte Nubienne
Published by Thomas Granier

In response to the housing problem in Africa[1], the Association la Voûte Nubienne (AVN) has been promoting the technical concept Voûte Nubienne (VN) in Sudano-Sahelian Africa for almost 20 years, a complete, adapted [2] and sustainable constructive solution. In order to best support the emergence of this new field, AVN offers inclusive techniques and training courses supported by an innovative dissemination methodology.  

The VN technical concept: an inclusive constructive solution

The users of the VN technical concept, both customers and construction actors, are mainly from the rural world, and evolve in largely informal market dynamics and subject to pronounced economic and educational fragilities. In order to allow the large-scale dissemination of this new constructive solution in Sub-Saharan Africa, AVN has chosen to simplify and systematize the original Nubian Vault technique[3].. The aim was to make it easily reproducible and therefore more widely accessible: ease of transmission, speed of learning, risk reduction...

The VN technical concept essentially uses widely available local materials (raw soil in the form of adobe and mortar for the entire outside structure) that do not require cooking, stabilization (no compression or addition of hydraulic binders); and basic tools and relatively simple technical skills.


 Technical drawing VN / crédit photo © AVN


The main assets of the VN technical concept lie in its excellent environmental performance, but also and especially in its potential for "socio-economic transversality": popular housing in peasant and informal economies, social housing on the outskirts of cities, high standard housing, basic infrastructure and various facilities can all be produced from the same construction system, allowing vulnerable populations to access affordable, comfortable buildings adapted to climate change. These strengths make this constructive solution a particularly effective and adapted response to the main housing needs of the Sudano-Sahelian region.


VN rural housing / photo credit © Mathieu Hardy

High-standing VN building / photo credit © Mathieu Hardy


"The Sahel is a region under extreme pressure from climate change, conflict and poverty. The Nubian vaults offer people a better way to live in this fragile region, at a modest cost and with virtually no environmental impact. "David Ireland, World Habitat Director, Founder and Coordinator of the World Habitat Awards (of which AVN is the winner in 2016-2017).

Support and methods for learning, strengthening and supervising VN professions: principles of an inclusive pedagogy adapted to the Sudano-Sahelian context

AVN assumed from the very beginning of its program that the learning of the technique should be done primarily on real sites in market conditions, on a model fairly close to the Compagnonnage[3]. In operation until now, the model ensures apprentices a full immersion that confronts them with the conditions they will encounter later on as "responsible" craftsmen; it also induces and allows the emergence of a network of Masons Trainers with recognized technical and pedagogical skills and development actors (AVN and partners) capable of accompanying and growing it. 

AVN's strategy has always been to focus on the largest number of actors, who constitute the basis of the social pyramid. The support of the VN mason's trade on informal markets, mainly in rural areas, has therefore been, and remains, the focal point of the activities deployed by the programme. However, the success of this original constructive solution and the resulting market diversification leads to the enlargement of the scope of existing professions within the VN sector and increase training needs: public works managers, technicians, architects and engineers, "formal" building companies able to respond to public tenders, etc.

These new stakeholders are gradually integrating into AVN's activities, at the operational level, from design to reception. The incorporation of these professions is progressing; inclusive technical and pedagogical methods and supports are constantly being developed and maintain their vocation to participate in the creation of a training offer adapted to populations whose levels of literacy and access to traditional training remain very low: "on-the-job" training and practical and theoretical reinforcement;


Worksite with on-the-job training / photo credit © Mathieu Hardy


Session in a training academy / photo credit © AVN


... technical-pedagogical materials that are easily understandable, with no obligation to read the texts.


Excerpt from the "Nubian Mason Manual" / photo credit © AVN


Excerpt from the "VN Learner's Journey Booklet" / photo credit © AVN

Through this approach, AVN promotes a mode of professional training adapted to local realities, and in a particularly interesting way, to the construction sector. In view of its encouraging results, this approach is currently being proposed to some national and local public vocational training actors, with a view to creating an alternating curriculum that will broaden overall market dynamics: informal/formal; rural/urban; private/public.

Development vision, territorial networking and local partnerships as vectors of diffusion

Development vision, territorial networking and local partnerships as vectors of diffusion


Schema of the development model of AVN / photo credit © AVN


The operational approach is based on a territorial networking work that is interlinked at several levels, going from the country to the municipality; and on legitimate local partner actors supported by AVN who ensure the operational implementation of activities on their territory. Each dissemination area is structured around Implementation Units (IU), a methodological synthesis of the program


 Carte d’implantation du programme d’AVN / crédit photo © AVN

The results of the program up to July 31, 2018

  • 2,900 projects carried out since the start of the programme in 2000 (+/- 104,000 m2) with an average annual growth rate of 21% over the last 10 years;
  • 840 apprentices, builders, craftsmen and active entrepreneurs;
  • 31,600 direct beneficiaries;
  • 85 300 tonnes de CO2 potentiellement économisé (construction + efficacité énergétique);
  • 3 million euros generated in local circuits;
  • 16 deployment regions in 5 countries.


  • Consider the market as one of the main vectors for the validation and wide dissemination of new constructive solutions. It is in this "real" production context that the relevance of the proposals can be fully appreciated, that strengths, weaknesses and ways of improvement can be identified.
  • Prioritize simple technical solutions to meet the most urgent needs of the construction sector in Sudano-Sahelian Africa. In addition to providing responses tailored to the needs of the most vulnerable households (housing and basic services), this "down-to-earth " approach offers the potential to reach large markets, while facilitating basic vocational training processes.
  • Act on supply and demand, because the effective promotion of new housing products can only be achieved by acting simultaneously on both.
  • Take into account the "informal" sector, which still dominates the building sector in Sudano-Sahelian Africa. It is particularly important to be able to adapt information and training methods and tools to this reality.
  • As a priority, develop technical and educational materials adapted to Sudano-Sahelian realities, which will respond in particular to the needs and capacities of the "poorly educated" actors who dominate the sector.

[1] "Sub-Saharan Africa has 199.5 million people living in slums", http://fr.unhabitat.org/urban-themes/logement-et-amelioration-des-bidonvilles/; "access to affordable housing has become one of the most important global problems and it is in Africa that the problem is most worrying," Dr Clos, Executive Director of UN-Habitat, 28 October 2014 in Nairobi

[2] The VN Technical Concept is adapted to the climatic conditions of Sudano-Sahelian Africa, marked by a dominant dry season and maximum annual rainfall not exceeding 1,200 mm. This constructive solution is in fact also potentially suitable for any other region with a similar climate.

[3] Compagnonnage : Organization of workers, craftsmen focused on vocational training and solidarity (compagnon). - editor's note

[4] The original technique of the Nubian vault was born in Nubia (now Upper Egypt and northern Sudan) more than 3,500 years ago. It was unknown in Sub-Saharan Africa until the early 1980s.

[5] "The dual purpose of companionship is to train people as well as qualified professionals. It enables each individual to fulfil his or her cultural and professional potential through the exercise of his or her profession and the transmission of knowledge. Compagnonnage is a tool for social promotion, training and education. Around the profession and its apprenticeship, it is a question for the young itinerant to build himself to the best of his abilities, to become a good professional and an actor of the city, sure of his value and his values.


Interview by Hassan Abouzid, Construction21

With the support of

Construire durable sous climats chauds
Sustainable construction in hot climates


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