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Sandbag Structures

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Breadline Africa explores alternate infrastructure solutions – Sandbag Structure

Since its inception in 1993, Breadline Africa (BLA) has grown into the largest supplier of converted shipping containers and prefabricated structures for poverty relief in South Africa. To date, more than 760 structures have been placed at community-run projects in resource-poor communities. These structures are predominantly used as classrooms, kitchen, and toilet facilities at Early Childhood Development (ECD) Centres, and as libraries in quintile 1 – 3 (i.e., no fee-paying) public primary schools.

In 2021, Breadline Africa implemented its Alternate Infrastructure Project. Project Manager, Alex Laugksch, explains that the project was motivated by several factors. “The communities where Breadline Africa has historically worked are high density, informal environments and therefore, not suitable for containers that need to be delivered on large vehicles. Secondly, while prefabricated structures allow for flatpack delivery and on-site assembly, having loose building material on site in high-risk communities often presents a challenge for the team. And, of course, in recent years, costs related to container conversations and custom-built prefabricated structures have escalated. So, as an organisation, we are wanting to identify cost-effective infrastructure solutions that are appropriate and suitable for the environments in which we work BUT that also have benefits for environmental sustainability. While containers offer good (short-term) re-use opportunities, they do have a finite lifespan and, likely to be left unused and abandoned in communities when they are no longer fit for purpose.”

Why is focusing on alternate infrastructure solutions for ECD Centres important? Marion Wagner, Director of Breadline Africa, says that as a signatory to the 2015 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, South Africa needs to be concerned about how children are supported to develop their full potential. “Breadline Africa works in communities where access to quality early learning facilities remains limited. Without such access, shaping the trajectory of a child’s development so that they will have a solid foundation for the future, is at risk.” For Breadline Africa, the Alternate Infrastructure Project is an attempt to say that we can do better and that we can – and must – utilise resources in a more responsible way, says Alex.

In March, Breadline Africa kickstarted its new project with the opening of a 44m2 sandbag structure at Ilithalethu Educare Centre in Khayelitsha. The structure includes a kitchen, an office as well as a large classroom area. While the sandbag building technique is not a new one, it is the first time that Breadline Africa has built such a structure, so there is much to celebrate!

Sandbag structures blend modern materials with traditional building techniques, using timber framing and concrete foundations, with up to 10% concrete or lime as a stabiliser in the earth mixture. They are built by vertically stacking bags which are (preferably) filled with locally sourced earth.

This building technique is not complicated and, structures can be built with the help of unskilled labour. So, there is the potential for upskilling people and providing work opportunities for community members. Sandbag structures also have a huge advantage in that they are not modular so the size can be tailored to the needs of the project. Plastering can be done with a standard concrete mixture; however, an earthen plaster can also be considered for a more carbon neutral and sustainable construction. External plastering is possible, making sandbag structures good candidates for permanent structures, says Alex.

Breadline Africa hopes to test a further five alternate building methods this year. Currently, a fibreglass kitchen/toilet facility is being prepared for Sijongephambili Crèche in Strand, Western Cape. This structure will be handed over in April 2022 with a plastic brick classroom being prepared for handover at an Early Learning Centre in Gauteng in May 2022. Over the coming months, the durability of the sandbag structure at Ilithalethu Educare will be monitored and its long-term suitability for use at ECD Centres further assessed.

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