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How we work - Solid Earth Africa
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Working sustainably

Solid Earth Africa’s is largely a networking organization. We link government, market and civil society competencies—both Ethiopian and international—to make adobe the preferred material for building new houses. The real question is: How do you need to work if the goal is to contribute to starting a grassroots housing movement – not 3 or even 5-year project—that is sustainable? That is to say, a process that goes by itself without on-going subsidies. A process where ordinary people choose adobe instead of wood, and both build and pay for their own houses, because they are convinced of the direct benefits their choice will give them. The following are some of the key insights and methods which Solid Earth Africa tries to follow:

SEA brings a sustained focus to the work of promoting adobe as an alternative to wood.

SEA is currently the only organization in Ethiopia which focuses solely on promoting affordable and environmentally friendly housing. Our role is to get the ball rolling. The long-term goal is to start a self-sustaining home-building movement in Ethiopia—one that is not dependent on endless subsidies and inputs.

SEA has chosen to use most of its efforts to promote adobe through existing Ethiopian organizations and community groups

While local SEA coordinators respond to a wide variety of requests for support, SEA’s main strategy so far has been to work primarily through established organizations. Why? Because those who are doing a good job and truly serving their people have succeeded in earning their trust. Trust is important because SEA talks about “self-builders” who build and pay for their own house. Why? Because they are convinced of the financial benefits for themselves.

Building with adobe is new to most people. They are used to building wood houses plastered with chika, a mixture of clay, water and straw—the same mixture, by the way, which is used to make adobe blocks. So, building with adobe means taking a risk. Many Ethiopian organizations, community groups and churches/mosques have built up trust with their people over a longer period of time—from years to generations! Organizational and community leaders are an important bridge in introducing a new building technique. What is at stake is the adobe house itself as a “hub” that could make every adobe house a sustainable homeowner-driven “development” project. Another way to look at SEA’s contribution is as a decentralized forest protection initiative.

In partnering with Ethiopian organizations, SEA’s goal is to help them establish a viable wood-saving household (WSH) program. We have identified four key steps which build on each other in a natural way. In dialogue with a local partner, a strategy is developed which adapts the wood-saving household to the specific local/regional situation. This includes factors such as

The partner’s experience, strengths and current program focus, experience (if any) with adobe, local history and cultural traditions, the degree of local deforestation and erosion, relationship to the different levels of government, funders and other organizations etc.

At the end of the day, it is local people who build and pay for their own homes. This requires that they have a high degree of understanding, motivation and a sense of ownership for the SEA concept. These can only be nurtured if homeowners and community and organizational leaders are convinced in terms of the benefits of adobe. When the goal is a housing movement that aims at being transformational, there can be no short-cuts. Being empowered and changing one’s mindset take time for all of us. In the end, a participatory process of discussion and planning—though it takes a lot of time—is actually more effective than simply achieving visible results quickly.

SEA is a networking organization that links Ethiopian competencies to each other, and connects international competencies to our Ethiopian partners.

SEA’s most important achievement during the first three years has been developing a network of Ethiopians who are convinced that adobe is a good solution for their country, for the average person. In November, 2013 a group of SEA board members were joined by a group of Ethiopians from SEA’s network for a study tour in Western Ethiopia. They came from a variety of backgrounds. The aim was to explore what resources and experience Ethiopians already possess linked to building with adobe. These local partners are competent, wise and committed. They are SEA’s greatest resource! They come from different parts of Ethiopia. They come from a variety of NGO’s (both international and Ethiopian) with project areas as diverse as child sponsorship and women’s and farmer’s organizations. Some are highly educated. Others are tradesmen. A number are leaders in their respective NGOs. Several are connected to universities as well as two technical and vocational colleges. And they represent a diversity of Ethiopian religions and churches. A good number have participated in an adobe training course and continue to actively promote SEA’s mission through their organizations, community groups and churches.

SEA’s networking function helps existing Ethiopian groups and organizations to share their diversity of competencies in order to develop well-functioning programs for what SEA calls “wood-saving households” (WSH). Some organizations have technical and design expertise with adobe. Others have developed tools for community conversation. Churches and mosques can play a role in emphasizing our common responsibility to be good stewards of creation. Governments have a responsibility in contributing a legislative and operational framework for economic growth that is carbon-neutral.

What SEA has done during the first five years has been done slowly.

In SEA, we believe it is very important to work slowly! Why such a strategy when achieving quick results could create the feeling that we are achieving our goals? Being able to point to fast results is much easier to sell to potential funders and supporters. It is easier to get funders to sponsor specific adobe houses. SEA would simply hire trained adobe contractors – though these are few and far between—and pay for adobe houses that low-income Ethiopians obviously need. But we choose not to do this. Ethiopians, like most other people, have always built and paid for their own houses. That’s why we believe it would be unwise to bring charity into what has, literally speaking, always been “local ownership”.

At the core of SEA’s work is a vision that we can contribute to starting an adobe house “movement” where ordinary Ethiopians build and pay for their own house. Generally speaking, people anywhere are only willing to pay for what they themselves believe in. And for most of us, seeing is believing. That’s why SEA, working through local partners has built a number of model houses in Ambo and in Durame.

It’s true. Adobe houses can be built quickly. But changing a house-building tradition takes time; what is new always takes a change of mind. And that takes time, often more time than organizations and the funders behind them are willing to take. There is a place for the outside expert. But the main work of identifying local needs, discussing possibilities and resources at hand, saving in order to buy building materials, taking time away from income-generating work in order to get training in adobe (or travelling to talk to others about their experience—all these only local people can and ought to do.

Marketing adobe must be done by Ethiopians.

Early on SEA decided that marketing a new (but) ancient building material cannot be done by foreign “experts”. Development work is moving away from this strategy. All too often, initiatives, ideas, planning and funding have been brought to the “underdeveloped” world by so-called “experts” who come from far away. At best local people are given incentives (often economic) to implement projects which they have very little ownership of. SEA is convinced that local Ethiopians themselves have most of the resources needed to meet the challenges they face and to build a better future—starting with an adobe house!

SEA helps Ethiopians gather and further develop their own know-how and initiative so that they can meet goals they themselves have set.

One of SEA’s long-term strategies is to strengthen Ethiopia’s civil society. At the broadest level, a strengthened civil society is needed if Ethiopia is to realize the government’s ambitious goals to achieve economic growth without an increase in carbon outputs. At the individual level, on the other hand, the task is to encourage, affirm, listen and reveal to Ethiopians that they have most of the resources needed to achieve their own goals. One of the greatest needs in development work generally is to meet people in their own setting—in their own homes and communities. Why? Because by listening carefully and by being keenly observant it is possible to learn and then affirm all that people are already doing to build-up their lives. Both SEA and our local partners need again and again to say, “You are somebody!” “You can do it!” “Each and every one of you has something important to contribute!”

Only Ethiopians know what a well-functioning and beautiful house looks like. SEA’s staff gather and provide up-to-date technical information and design ideas that allow the individual homeowner to build an affordable yet high quality, long-lasting and attractive adobe house.

The major challenge in introducing adobe is not technical but cultural.

SEA’s founder, Brigt Oystese, built a simple adobe house together with an Ethiopian neighbor in a small village in Western Ethiopia in 2004. This experience made it clear that adobe is an ideal material which can and should replace wood for two important reasons: First, traditional chika wood houses have become part of the poverty trap. They need to be rebuilt every 5-10 years. Second, remaining Ethiopian forests are fast disappearing resulting in erosion of topsoil, a key to being able to produce food, and the spread of termites which are the main reason traditional houses don’t last longer. We are convinced that the adobe technology, in itself, is a proven solution to these problems. However, as a new organization we soon discovered that adobe has very little status. Ethiopians dream of building a house made of concrete and steel. Such houses are both unaffordable and represent a step in the wrong direction in terms of sustainability.



The four step approach

Solid Earth Africa’s introduction of wood-saving households is based on a four-step approach:

Step 1

Community Conversation

Step 2


Step 3


Step 4


After spending several years researching best practices that Ethiopians already have developed for building with adobe, we became convinced that there are four major steps involved from the time a new idea is introduced until adobe houses, instead of wood houses, becomes a reality. These steps are snap-shots of a process which, in reality, is complex and intertwined, with no neat starting and stopping points. At the same time the contents of each step can easily be distinguished.

Step 1: Community Conversation

Ethiopians need to make their own decisions in finding solutions to the challenges they face. We believe they have most of the resources needed to change their own lives for the better. To grow strong and tall, a tree needs good roots. Without a good root system, even a good concept like adobe is vulnerable to periods of drought and other hardships. That’s why a participatory process of learning, discussing, reflecting and asking questions is so important. The decision to build in a new way and paying for all building costs should not be rushed. Skilled coordinators from SEA or partner organizations have experience in facilitating community conversations.

  1. Why does wood rot so quickly? Why have termites become an increasing problem?
  2. What has happened to all the trees?
  3. What is the link between disappearing forests, soil erosion and diminishing food crops?
  4. What are people already doing (or considering doing) to meet the challenges they face?
  5. What are the benefits of an adobe house? What are the drawbacks?
  6. Are adobe houses just as strong as our traditional houses? Are they safe?
  7. Is it possible for an ordinary person to build an adobe house?
  8. How much does an adobe house cost? How is it possible to save money with so many pressing daily needs?
  9. How can we learn to build in a new way? Who can teach us?
  10. Is it possible to visit areas and talk to people who have experience building and living in adobe houses?

To answer these and many other questions, people need time to take in information, reflect on their situation, ask their questions and contribute their ideas. Community conversation around adobe often involves a study trip to a place where adobe has taken root. For all of us, and not least for people with little income security, “seeing is believing”! Working through trusted “bridge” persons known in the community, SEA or partner organization facilitators encourage people to realize that they have most of the resources to meet their own needs. At the same time the facilitator provides practical information which the people lack. An open debate is important before the group decides how to move forward, who will participate and when. Given enough time, and a balance between reflection and action, the adobe concept can develop a strong root system which is adapted to the local needs, environmental situation, culture and tradition. Such a tree will bear sun-ripened fruit—satisfied homeowners who have built and financed their own adobe house. This fruit differs from development “fruit” that is the result of artificial fertilizers (the dominance of outside “experts”) and flood irrigation (big budgets and financial subsidies).

Step 2: Training

At some point a group of interested and motivated potential homeowners and representatives from the community emerges. After making an inventory of local experience with adobe, potential adobe trainers are also identified. Together they are ready to participate in a training program. A certified adobe trainer can be brought in to lead the building of the first model houses. Or training can take place at a training camp at an adobe training center—currently the Tchallia Building and Trades School in Western Ethiopia. This training has two components, one theoretical and the other practical. A house design that the group has chosen is important for the first houses that are built as a training exercise. A good model house is one that has a proud do-it-yourself homeowner in it, one who is willing to be a good ambassador for a new building technique! The complexity and length of the training period should be decided by the community.

For more information on Training of Trainers work camps held at the Challia Building Trades School during the past 4 years, see following link: Link to train the trainers report, July 2015.

Step 3: Building

After the first model houses are built, a small group of persons with newly-acquired adobe skills are now in a position to share their building experience with others who are interested in learning more. In time, some of these—often those with previous experience in one of the building trades—become local adobe trainers. This is the first step in “scaling-out”, where new adobe homeowners “sell” the wood-saving households concept to their neighbors. The building of model houses (action) becomes a good basis for further community conversation (reflection). Further training for do-it-yourself builders can continue. Where adobe really takes root, a market for paid adobe contractors as well as small business which produce adobe blocks can develop.

It is of utmost importance that the first adobe houses built in an area are of high quality and finish. There are many examples of poorly constructed adobe houses. These get copied and, unfortunately, become a bad advertisement for a good building technique. SEA’s commitment is to further refine, test and develop the adobe technique so that it meets modern building requirements and the expectations of Africans eager for change. In the next years, this experience will lay the ground-work for developing building codes for adobe, as for example in New Zealand, Germany and the U.S. There are no copyrights on SEA’s wood-saving households concept. Our hope is that “any and all” will “steal” a building technique that uses the world’s most sustainable building material—the earth itself!

Step 4: Follow up

It is well known that without good follow up, even good programs can grind to a halt. After building, it’s time for evaluation and feedback. What were the best practices? What didn’t work as expected? How could the process be improved? How can new know-how and experience be shared with others?

Another important part of follow-up is making a plan for regular maintenance. The most inexpensive adobe houses are susceptible to wear and tear from rainwater splashing up from the ground and onto the lower part of the exterior walls. One simple remedy is to regularly apply a thin coat of chika plaster, a mixture of clay, fermented straw and water. This is an important point that needs to be clearly emphasized already during Step 1- “Community Conversation”, and then needs to be reviewed during Step 2 – “Training”.

A community that collectively takes pride in their new adobe houses will naturally be an inspiration for others trying to decide on whether to invest in a new building technology. In the long run, a proud do-it-yourself builder and homeowner is by far SEA’s best promoter. To build a movement for wood-saving households requires homeowners who have begun to experience the benefits of household-based development through their own savings and hard work. Often individual homeowners are part of a community organization—e.g. a local NGO, church or mosque, farmers’ association etc. —that has worked together to build several houses. Such cooperation is a powerful form for empowerment that releases new energy, hope and self-determination. “Look at what we managed to do by working together!” This kind of experience becomes a natural starting point for continued community conversation with neighbors.

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