Rice farmers build houses with husks and straws

Rice farmers in Mwea are finding innovative ways to use the wastes, husks and straws, as building materials to construct what they are calling 'rice houses', saving them construction expenses while reducing the rate of environmental damage which was traditionally exacerbated by burning the bi products in open air.

After harvesting the rice farmers are left with masses of husks and straws. The husks remain after rice is milled while straws are the remains after the harvest. The accumulation of the bi products which has been every farmer's eyesore has seen them gather them in open fields and burn them a fact that scientists now blame for not only having a toll on soil fertility in the area but also for air pollution through the release of the toxic gases contained in the bi products.

However the last two years has been the light bulb moment for the farmers who have devised a way of using the wastes to build low cost housing. This coming at a time when the farmers are struggling to buy building materials that have been on an upward trend recently. For example, the cost of cement, a key construction ingredient has shot up from Sh400 three years ago to between Sh700 and Sh750 while that of iron sheets has shot up by upto 40 percent in recent times. “It has become unbearable to build decent homes for ourselves and our children. And even though there are good returns from the rice cultivation, there are equally competing needs like feeding and clothing our children, and buying other farm inputs. The high cost of building materials has therefore discouraged most of us,”said Daniel Mugane one of the rice farmers who are now embracing alternative building materials.

Farmers collect the straws and allow them to dry for at least a day. After putting up supporting wood on the roof the straws are placed in a cascading position or depending on the farmer's wish. They have become famous with the locals due to their insulation properties. “When its so sunny you dont feel the heat while in the house as opposed to when you are in an iron sheet house. They block sunlight and the heat,”said Winnie Mureria a widow and mother of four who traditionally survived on makeshift houses and was among the pioneer farmers to embrace 'rice houses' as they are commonly referred to.

The husks on the other hand have replaced cement which in this area is seen as a rare and expensive commodity in the area. After milling the rice the husks are collected and burnt in open fire until they turn to ash.  The ash is then sieved to remove large objects before it is re sieved and then used as a bonding material when mixed with cement at a ratio of 1:1. It is also used as an excellent binding material of the metal cladding with the ceramic liner. The rice husk ash being a poor conductor of heat, is an excellent binding material.

Since the start of the project in 2011, over 200 homes have been built using the rice wastes which has also spurred economic activities among the farmers. Victor Njururi a father of two who was also among the pioneer farmers to adopt the rice houses has now taken the skills to another level and is building for interested individuals in Mwea and in neighbouring Kirinyaga and Embu area. The demand for such houses, he says, has been meteoric. He charges Sh500 as daily labour and sells one 50kg bag, the equivalent of a pocket of cement, at Sh250 saving farmers Sh500 for every bag. A 3 bedroom house requires about seven such bags. For the straw they are measured in kilos with a kilo going for Sh150. “There are so many straws thats why we charge them at that rate. Business has been good so far. On average I manage to get over 10 requests for construction. I have now employed five guys to assist me,”he said.

“Its the long lasting aspect of these structures that has made us refer it to our friends. I have had my house since 2011, never experienced cracks in the walls or leaks in the roofs,”said Wagina Mwende who lost his wooden house in 2010 due to fire.
And as prices of basic building materials like cement, tiles, and iron sheets remain volatile due to rising demand and seasonal shortages, new models of building low cost, affordable housing is turning out to be the long term solution to the yawning housing deficit between supply and demand. 'Rice houses are now proving as one such venture.