Ones to Watch: Builders of Hope Kenya and New App iBuild

Kgomotso Tolamo from Developing Smart Cities

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A new partnership in Kenya is combining high and low tech to make it easier for informal builders to improve the quality of their housing construction for low-income families. Builders of Hope, USA, a developer of low-cost and affordable housing in cities like Dallas, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina has recently ventured into three African markets starting in Kenya.

This new venture, Builders of Hope, Kenya (BOH), headed up by Kenyan architect, Ronald Omyonga, plans to narrow the continent’s housing gap with a new mobile phone app called iBuild. With Nairobi as a launch pad, the organization has already established partnerships in Tanzania and Rwanda to add to their projects in Kenya.

 Born in Shirali, a small village in western Kenya, Omyonga trained as an architect at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. With years of experience in organizations like HELP International, Umande Trust, UN-Habitat, Habitat for Humanity, and HabiHut, Omyonga is driven by the desire to make housing and architecture accessible to all.

The majority of housing construction and delivery for low-income households in Kenya and most developing markets is informal. It’s difficult to hold fundis, as informal builders are called in Kenya, accountable when they also lack training, technical and business skills.

Omyonga saw this as an opportunity. The concepts at the heart of Builders of Hope Kenya are the Housing Support Services (HSS) Bureau and the iBuild app. With these, he’s helping households improve their housing, making fundis more accountable to their clients, helping these informal builders be more productive and profitable and ultimately improving the quality of the housing delivered to Kenyan families.

The HSS Bureau and the app together aim to remove roadblocks that prevent lower income households in Kenya from getting a quality home. Omyonga also believes it will help solve bigger challenges, like the shortage of trained fundis.

BOH Kenya draws on the HSS Bureau concept to formalize fundi services with support for design, costing, project management, material selection and sourcing, and quality assurance. The Bureau will also offer fundis certified and accredited training, as well as registration, through partnerships with technical institutions like the one that BOH has developed with Omyonga’s alma mater, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. BOH believes that formalizing this informal building trade will raise quality standards of building overall, by ensuring houses are improved and built within budget and to correct specifications.

Along with nurturing the informal building trade, BOH has developed the iBuild app in partnership with IBM. The app supports the goal of formalizing informal builders by offering house designs, accurate project estimates and a database for registered professionals that can connect with fundis. By making both technology and better-skilled talent more accessible, BOH hopes to tilt housing markets in favor of low-income home owners and informal builders.

In its 2015 yearbook, the Centre for Affordable Housing Finance in Africa (CAHF) noted that the United Nations estimated the proportion of slum dwellings in Kenyan urban centers at 56 percent in 2014, which amounts to 1,851,763 dwelling units in slum areas. So Kenya would need approximately 132,000 housing units per annum to meet urban population growths.

At CAHF, we’re keeping an eye on the lessons that come out of BOH Kenya’s efforts. We’d like to see whether these much needed informal building services can be formalized and, especially, whether this app will entice or repel fundis. For now, it’s not clear whether the building process, with all its players and outputs, can be practically connected and summed up in this app.

What’s certainly valuable, is BOH’s desire, and their much-needed efforts, to make the delivery and construction of quality housing more accessible to low-income households. No question also that aiding informal builders in creating formal, profitable entities would support economic development.

Although fundis operate informally, they often have the best and most direct understanding of the environments in which they work. Getting these builders to back BOH and other organizations trying to enter and transform the African housing space at scale certainly requires a better understanding of the barriers and obstacles on the ground. We look forward to learning more and observing the outcomes for Kenyan families and fundis.