Working In Africa: Learn Quicker Than The West
After working in Tanzania for eight years, it is now on par with the the eight years I have worked in western countries. Honestly, I have learned more about designing and constructing buildings, while working in Africa, than I did while working in the UK and Australia. You may think this is bizarre, “How can that be? Isn’t Africa poor?” Designing buildings in developing countries have their challenges, but can be an extremely rewarding experience. Here are six reasons why you can learn more in Africa, as an architect, and why I would recommend working in Africa. This does not only apply to architects. This can be relevant to other careers too.
According to the UN the Top 10 fastest growing cities in the world are all in Africa. Three of these are in Tanzania: Songea, Mwanza and Dar Es Salaam. This may not be a surprised but, there is lot of work to do here! So, it’s seems like an obvious place for people in the construction industry to work. Architects design buildings – so go to a country where they are building a lot of them. It’s that simple.
Firstly, design and construction happens quicker in developing countries because there is less tape holding things down. Secondly, more construction projects get built. And thirdly, you learn more about design and the construction process quicker. This is going back to Time Management and Parkinson’s Law. “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” You generally will not be spending month upon months doing one particular task, you dont have the luxury to do that. Certain tasks or drawings get streamlined quickly in Africa so you dont spend a lot of time doing one particular thing. You get more work done, because the time frame is tighter.
There can be less bureaucracy in Africa, compared to the west. Less paper work. Approvals, time sheets, access statements, minutes to meetings, administration, heaven forbid, over the top BIM Management. For example, I dont get involved much in planning procedures. I’m not saying its better not having all these procedures, but sometimes I’m grateful. I would much rather be designing buildings rather than doing these other mundane tasks.
Encountering less paperwork, makes you realize, how much bureaucracy there is in the west. I was overwhelmed with rules, regulations and procedures in UK and Australia. For example, you need planning approval to put a room in your loft in some countries or to put a sign up. Housing, can be zoned to a point it feels like the council practically tell you what to build.
UK Prime minister, Boris Johnson is starting to to speed up the planning process. He promises to cut planning red tape that hold back developments and speed things up. This is proof that all these approvals and procedure can be over the top and waste a lot of time. Yes they do help with safety and the skyline too and prevent things from getting out of hand, but they also prevent getting anything done quickly. Find be the right balance with the amount of approvals.
Working in Africa makes you think on your feet, about paperwork and how much time is wasted on these issues. You learn for yourself what is right and wrong and take responsibility. Instead of relying on municipal approvals. That way, when its done you dont see people on the BBC News, blaming the government. It’s down to you.
There is a lot of talk that Africa should not be copying western style architecture. I have been in countless rooms in Clubhouse discussing why more ‘Vernacular’ Architecture is needed in Africa. For me, this is a cliché statement. Vernacular Architecture generally means, to use local or regional construction and traditional materials. This is not always practical.
To understand what is practical, you have to understand what is required in African countries like Tanzania and Zambia. Many companies and developers want modern buildings to attract western clients. This is not usually possible with vernacular style architecture. International clients have policies for their business. People do not want to live or work in buildings made of mud with nowhere to park their cars. They don’t want something that looks old fashioned either. Also, materials like concrete are readily available and there is no other practical material available that can do the job, in terms of buildability and strength. Clients want large accommodations, multistory structures in cities. You are not going to get that with cow dung and grass. Rather that using traditional materials and construction techniques, incorporating vernacular style elements and themes is the future of African architecture. Something we see less of in the west, nowadays.
There are some issues regarding lack of health and safety when working in Africa. That can actually be a blessing. It means you have to know everything, and not rely on other people to pick it up for you. You need to know if a fire fighting lift shaft is required in a building. You have to know how wide the stairs need to be to take a building occupancy. There is no one going to check this for you. You have to find out yourself.
It makes me laugh sometimes when people say to me things like, “oh just ask your fire consultant.” YOU are the fire consultant. You don’t have other consultants to approve. There is not much specialty designers. You work in a team until you find out whats right.
Architects are usually striving for simplicity. In Africa, you can focus on this more and you do not get wrapped up with all the other tasks distracting you, compared with the west. You can focus more on design principles, keeping things simple. Finding the right balance – is the level of complexity adding to the value or over complicating it? This is what architecture is about. You can focus on improving peoples lives.
I have become less interested in ground breaking, inspiring architecture over the last couple of years. Groundbreaking architecture does inspire and provoke emotional motivation. However, I appreciate architecture that do not require huge teams of architects, engineers and so many other consultants with all these different specialties.
A lot of architecture in Africa won’t win many awards internationally for being pioneering, but that’s the beauty of working in Africa. Architecture is not about expensive groundbreaking buildings. It’s about focusing on improving peoples lives and the surroundings. You can focus on design principles, and not spend six months designing a fancy facade or being sectioned on a niche design team. There is nothing wrong with that. The future of architects can be specialization. But if you want a broad knowledge base and for people to appreciate your design, knowledge and talent, then Africa could be for you. Well designed, practical buildings can have a stronger impact on improving peoples lives compared to the west. This is because underdeveloped countries appreciate it more.
Working in Africa Recommended?
If you are a western architect and you feel like you are not really designing buildings or you feel like you are not making much of a difference to peoples lives, or even feel like a needle in a haystack of other architects, then Africa could be for you. You will definitively learn how to design and construct practically, conceptually, with good planning, using simple details, simple sustainability and simply improving peoples lives. The speed and practicality of Africa will make you feel like you are learning more, making a difference and contributing to the largest neglected and underrated continent in the architecture industry.
Russell M. Henderson is a practicing RIBA Chartered Architect based in Tanzania, East Africa.
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