Migration of people to cities has reached unprecedented levels in recent human history. Over a third of these people – around one billion in total – now live in slums, informal settlements and shantytowns, often in little more than corrugated iron and zinc sheet shacks lacking access to even the most basic sanitation, clean water, security, or clean energy sources.
Africa boasts the fastest rate of urbanisation, and it has the highest share of informal settlement residents (62% of sub-Saharan Africa’s urban population live in slums). If trends continue, by 2050, there will be an estimated 1.2 billion people inhabiting Africa’s swelling slums, according to the UN.
Slums are often hubs of impressive innovation and creativity by residents working to get by – rigging electricity, sanitation and water systems in the absence of real infrastructure. But there is an enormous and urgent need for better, more sustainable solutions to house the urban poor in Africa, and worldwide.
Living the iLife
The “iShack” isn’t Apple’s attempt at affordable housing. It’s short for “improved shack living”, an innovative approach to slum housing improvements that's being piloted in Enkanini, a growing slum just outside Stellenbosch, South Africa.
Developed by a group of students at the University of Stellenbosch, the iShack features a solar panel to power three lights, a mobile-phone charger and an outdoor spotlight for security. The roof is designed to collect rainwater, and windows are placed to allow better airflow and sunlight heating. The interior walls are insulated with recycled cardboard boxes and Tetra Pak containers, the exterior walls are coated with fire-retardant paint, and bricks create solid foundation flooring.
The iShack is less about being a complete physical dwelling, and more about a series of incremental tech upgrades that give slum-dwellers safe access to basic services, says Berry Wessels, iShack’s field co-ordinator. “The idea is for us to develop a kind of social enterprise that will enable certain infrastructural solutions and products to be implemented in informal settlements.”
For example, one of the greatest challenges faced in slums is energy. Tightly packed informal settlements act as tinderboxes, and a small fire from candles or kerosene lanterns (the cheapest forms of lighting) can – and often do – spread like wildfire. Just last week in Enkanini a fire destroyed nearly 600 houses. To help prevent these situations, iShack is developing an affordable pay-as-you-go meter system for supplying solar energy to houses.
Working on upgrading technology for slums isn’t easy, the team says. “In these informal settlements, there is no real leadership structure, it’s very fragmented”, says Wessles. A major barrier is what Andreas Keller, developer of the iShack’s concept, calls an “insecurity of tenure”. People may be hesitant to make major investments into their shacks, because their ability to reside there in the future is uncertain – the result of perhaps shifting jobs, unstable income, or disasters.
As a result, the team is making sure that any solution can be adapted and used in any future environment – whether it’s an upgrade or downgrade. “When you move into a new home, you can bring the appliances/technology with you,” says Keller.
iShack’s prototype concept costs around 5,600 rand ($660), excluding the solar power system. Six hundred dollars may seem cheap to some, but the cost of living in slums is full of hidden costs.
“Designing for the poor forces you to rethink all assumptions you have,” says Christian Sarkar, co-founder of the “$300 House” initiative, a global crowdsourcing effort to design sustainable living for the poor.