Building on Existing Foundations: Why Upgrading Housing in Sub-Saharan Africa Holds Immense Potential

Sub-Saharan Africa faces a unique challenge in its housing sector – a rapidly growing urban
population coupled with limited resources. While the need for new housing is evident, a
strategic focus on improving existing housing systems can offer a more sustainable and
impactful approach. This article delves into the merits of upgrading existing housing over
solely focusing on building new ones. It highlights the potential to address housing concerns,
maintain and empower communities, and foster sustainable development in the region.
Why Focus on Existing Housing? A Cost-Effective and Community-Centric
Building entirely new housing developments often comes at a significant cost, requiring
substantial investments in infrastructure, construction materials, and skilled labour. In this
context, upgrading existing housing systems in established communities presents
several compelling advantages:
1. Maximising Value:
Leveraging Existing Infrastructure: Upgrading existing settlements can
capitalize on existing infrastructure, such as roads, electricity grids, and
schools, minimizing the need for additional investments that would be required for
entirely new developments. This reduces the overall cost of providing essential
services and housing for residents.
● Reduced Construction Costs: Upgrading existing structures typically requires
less financial output compared to building new ones from scratch. This is
especially so because the land purchase costs are avoided. This improves
cost-effectiveness in addressing immediate housing needs and improving living
conditions for a larger number of residents within the available resources.
2. Preserving Community Fabric:
● Minimising Displacement: Building new housing projects can often lead to the
displacement of existing residents, disrupting their social networks and
livelihoods. Upgrading existing settlements, conversely, allows residents to remain
in their communities, preserving their sense of belonging and established social
● Cultural Preservation: Upgrading existing structures can preserve the unique
character and heritage of these communities, fostering a sense of identity and
continuity for residents. This approach improves the accessibility to decent housing.
3. Environmental Sustainability:
● Reducing Construction Waste: The construction of new housing generates
significant construction and demolition waste, contributing to environmental
burdens. Upgrading existing structures minimizes this impact by reusing existing

materials and reducing the need for new resource extraction and transportation.
This is akin to recycling which is geared towards sustainability.
● Promoting Energy Efficiency through construction innovation: Upgrading
existing buildings with energy-saving technologies can significantly reduce
energy consumption and minimize their environmental footprint. This includes
initiatives like installing efficient lighting systems, improving insulation, and utilizing
renewable energy sources.
4. Expediting Improvements and Impact:
● Faster Turnaround Time: Upgrading existing housing can often be achieved in a
shorter time frame compared to the planning, construction, and infrastructure
development required for entirely new settlements. This allows for more
immediate improvements in living conditions for residents, addressing
immediate needs while longer-term solutions are developed.
● Immediate Positive Impacts: Addressing basic needs like sanitation, water
access, and structural repairs through upgrades can provide immediate
improvements in the lives of residents. This contributes to the enhancement of
their well-being, and overall quality of life.
5. Empowering Communities and Building Capacity:
● Community Participation: Upgrading projects if conducted as inclusive and
participatory processes where residents have a say in decisions regarding
improvements to their living environment. Fosters a sense of ownership and
empowers communities to contribute to their development.
● Building Local Expertise: Utilising local skilled labour and expertise in upgrading
projects can boost local economies and create new employment opportunities.
Additionally, these projects can contribute to building local capacity for the future
maintenance and development within communities.
Beyond the Benefits: Acknowledging the Need for a Balanced Approach
While upgrading existing housing systems offers significant advantages, it is crucial to
acknowledge that this approach alone is not sufficient to address all housing challenges in
Sub-Saharan Africa. Here’s why:
● Rapid Urbanisation: The rapid growth of urban populations continues to outpace
the capacity of existing housing infrastructure. Entirely new housing units will be
necessary to accommodate this growing demand, particularly in rapidly expanding
urban centers.
● Addressing Specific Needs: Certain communities may require specialized
solutions beyond standard upgrades, such as addressing issues arising from
extreme weather events or specific vulnerabilities faced by marginalized groups.
Building new, resilient housing solutions is necessary in these scenarios.
Therefore, a combined approach that strategically utilizes both upgrading and building new
housing, depending on the specific needs and context of each community, is likely to be the
most effective long-term strategy.

Building a Sustainable Future: Collaborative Efforts and Strategic Investments
Maximizing the benefits of both upgrading and building new housing requires a
a collaborative effort involving various stakeholders:
● Government: Implementing policies and regulations that incentivize and support
the upgrading of informal settlements, while also directing resources towards
strategic development of new, sustainable housing options.
● Private Sector: Investing in innovative technologies and materials that can
facilitate cost-effective and sustainable construction.
● NGOs: Providing technical expertise, resources, and capacity building to
communities to participate in decision-making and implementation of upgrading
● Community Leaders: Mobilising residents and acting as a bridge between
communities and other stakeholders, ensuring their voices are heard and needs
Strategic investments in the following areas can further promote the success of this

○ Data-driven decision-making: Utilising data on demographics, housing
needs, and existing infrastructure to prioritize interventions and ensure
resources are allocated effectively.
○ Capacity building: Providing training and resources to local communities
and construction workers to improve their skills and expertise in
construction, maintenance, and management of upgraded housing.
○ Financial models: Exploring innovative financing mechanisms, such as
microloans, social impact bonds, and public-private partnerships, to mobilise
resources for upgrading projects and ensuring affordability for residents.

Towards a Brighter Future for Housing in Sub-Saharan Africa
While the challenges faced by the housing sector in Sub-Saharan Africa are immense, a
strategic focus on upgrading existing housing systems, coupled with responsible
development of new housing offers a viable and impactful path forward. This approach
prioritizes cost-effectiveness, community well-being, and environmental sustainability,
laying the foundation for a future where everyone has access to safe, affordable, and
dignified housing.

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