In response to the report Analysis of the Housing Value Chain in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Patrick McAllister interviewed Christophe Côte to learn more about how Kwilu Briques is helping to strengthen the value chain for affordable house construction.
Christophe Côte is the managing director of Kwilu Briques in Kwilu-Ngongo, Democratic Republic of Congo. This innovative producer of eco-friendly fired clay blocks and other building materials is committed to helping Congolese people build better homes through locally sourced materials.
A management engineer by training, Christophe conceived of Kwilu Briques as part of his training at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management. In 2009 he had the opportunity to visit the Compagnie Sucrière de Kwilu- Ngongo for his thesis thanks to a partnership between The Free University of Brussels and the Belgian Group Finasucre SA. Charles Feÿs, General Secretary of the Group at that time, had chosen him to help solve the problem of excess bagasse or spent sugar cane. The idea was to use it as fuel for fired brick production.
While 85% of the company’s spent cane is used to power the sugar factory, the remaining 15% had reached an unsustainable 10,000 tons and growing: more efficient equipment requires less of the combustible material to run the sugar factory. Elsewhere, sugar companies use all of this material to produce energy with the excess sold to the national grid, but this is currently difficult to implement in DRC. At the same time, the cement and clay brick buildings recently built in Kinshasa were falling down due to the poor quality of construction materials used. Consulting with engineers in South Africa, Christophe Côte discovered a method to dry and use the spent cane from sugar production as fuel for kilns to produce high quality fired clay blocks, solving two problems at once. Christophe approached the owners of the company who agreed to invest in his idea and help them turn a problem of excess bagasse into a solution of better quality building materials for Congolese people. In 2014 Kwilu Briques was founded.
PM: Christophe, what drew you to the DRC in the first place?
CC: I grew up in Belgium knowing little of my Congolese heritage. My parents spoke Lingala at home -but only when they wanted to keep secrets from us children! I recall when I got the opportunity to travel to DRC for my thesis I had strong feelings of belonging and not belonging. I feel very much Belgian and Congolese and I want the Congo to be better.
PM: What makes Kwilu Briques different from other bricks and blocks on the market?
CC: First, we are the only ones making industrial clay blocks in West DRC. We also provide transportation directly to the client, and this is included in the price of the block. In DRC this is important because transportation is a large cost and difficult to manage. Our blocks are also made using local materials – the clay for our products is sourced close to the factory itself and the kilns are fired using the bagasse from the sugar factory so no fossil fuels or charcoal is needed. But perhaps the biggest difference between Kwilu Briques and other products on the market is that we made a better product because we really want people to build better. We realize that most people don’t have access to quality architects and engineers so we accompany our customers in three steps: Drawing, Quantity Study and Construction. In the first step of Drawing we take plans, either those brought by the client or a plan we create ourselves; in the second step we use Revit software to build quantitative models based on the plans to get accurate quantities and prices and make sure the plans are reliable; and in the third step we are training masons to build using our blocks which are cheaper and better than traditional materials when used correctly.
PM: Cement block seems to be the standard, so why would someone choose Kwilu over cement?
CC: Both cement and clay have a long history. But clay is better adapted to tropical regions thanks to its reduced weight and better thermal insulation. If someone wishes to live in a durable, greener and more comfortable environment, they should choose our solutions. In terms of price, we are not more expensive, with some of our building solutions even being 10-15% cheaper.
PM: A recent report shows that the value chain for home building in DRC is broken. What do you see as the weak links in the house construction value chain? How is Kwilu Briques helping?
CC: You are right – all the steps in the chain are weak and no one link is more important than another. For instance, there are so many middle-men who are ready to sacrifice quality for profit that while poor people can’t afford high-end blocks, even rich people are getting poor quality blocks because of these crooks. A more integrated approach with a focus on information sharing with the Client is therefore needed to solve this situation. One way we are helping is through the use of Quantitative study for design and the use of standardized materials. Another is trying to build partnerships within the value chain.
PM: Finance is another broken link in the value chain. Do you provide materials on credit?
CC: Not usually. We don’t work with any financial institutions to finance our products. Some clients are allowed to buy on credit, such as employee of our parent company, the Compagnie Sucrière. Some of our clients are working with banks but we are not yet involved.
PM: The lowest price developer-built home in DRC costs approximately $40,000 (roughly 10 times average national income). When you work with low income families what do you see as their biggest need in home improvement?
CC: Construction is too expensive because the value chain is broken. One main issue is that the urban growth rate is outpacing population growth, making housing a critical problem for good development of Congolese cities. This is why we are working on the design of a $10,000 home to be built in partnership with private businesses involved in the construction sector and the Congolese state. This is a long-term project but we are working on it. Another challenge is that poverty is complex; the need is different for a poor person living in a rural area compared to a person in a city. In rural areas, earth blocks are the best solution. When you mix earth with water you can easily give it a shape. Adding a tiny bit of cement and compressing it in a mold, it becomes solid and, after drying, very strong. Kwilu Briques has the machines that compress the molds; we would like to sell or rent them. Training masons would be done by a mix of local and foreign experts. We are in discussions with Engineers Without Borders Belgium and a masonry school in the city of Tshela to try to move this forward.
Personally, I believe that building better is about helping people, not just supplying materials. So we have started writing a book on the step-by-step process to build a home. The book will deconstruct the house and tell people how to do it the right way using Kwilu Briques. As a starting point, we have brochures providing technical support such as “How to build a wall” and “How to lay a floor”. Mukandu architects and engineers are collaborating on the book; the owner is a Congolese construction engineer with experience in South Africa and Angola.
PM: Do you offer DIY low income customers any help?
CC: During production we have some products that do not meet the specification for a multi-story building but can be used for single story and we sell these at our production facility at cost (we only sell these on site, and transportation is not include). We cannot reach the very poor, who are better served by good quality locally burnt clay bricks, but the price is 350 francs ($0.27), which is 1/3 the price of the standard product.
PM: How many people do you employ and what is the production process?
CC: We currently employ 130 people, operating 24×7 because you can’t stop the kilns. The fire goes from chamber to chamber, never stopping. Restarting takes a week’s time. Our machines produce 10 tons of clay blocks per hour. They came from Belgium and Germany and are standard for a brick factory. Compared with more advanced machines they are not very automated, but we wanted people to be part of the process because for us there is a social aspect as well as a business aspect to employment. On the social side, these people come work for us make a good income which allows them to start planning for life. On the business side, one day these guys are going to consume our product. If we don’t take this into account I think it would be sad. That is different from the business side of selling the product. People building a house don’t think about it.
PM: What are your aspirations for Kwilu Briques?
CC: The main aspiration is to provide the tools and knowledge to build better in DRC; the second aspiration is growth in the whole country and the third is to make a buck with all this. In the next three years I would like to multiply sales ten times which would reach the capacity of our equipment.
PM: And what are your aspirations for DRC?
CC: After my second trip to DRC I told my uncle that the Congolese people should stop looking to others for solutions instead of looking at themselves. Our slogan is « Notre terre, c’est notre force » – our land is our strength. Congo is a holy land. One proof is its soil where clay of great quality can easily be found. This allows Kwilu Briques to provide to her clients a local product of great strength and durability for their construction. I want this country to transform all its potential into a reality. I want to show Congolese people that they must be part of this change.
PM: Best of luck!
CC: Thank you!
 Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter. République Démocratique du Congo: Analyse de la Chaîne de Valeur de la Construction de Logements. 2018. This report was delivered as part of a collaboration between Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter and ÉLAN RDC, a DRC market systems development project financed by UKAID and implemented by Adam Smith International.