East Africa: The Challenge of Collapsing City Buildings Is Bigger Than Approvals

East Africa: The Challenge of Collapsing City Buildings Is Bigger Than Approvals

The recent collapse of a multi-storey building under construction at Makerere yet again wounded the structural integrity of Kampala’s rising skyline.

A fortnight later, the loud bang of a six-storey building’s concrete crumbling amid a torrential downpour left Nairobi trembling through the night.

With East Africa’s cities dotted with a construction boom, the mishaps that have befallen structures in Kampala remain unsettling. Although inept enforcement takes the spotlight for building disasters, relatable influences have a stake in the safety of the built environment.

Unlike Kenya where the National Construction Authority regulates construction, local authorities oversee building works in Uganda, although construction has outpaced their reach.

Responding to Kampala Capital City Authority’s failing in relation to the latest calamity, the KCCA chief executive officer is reported to have acknowledged that they are incapacitated to superintend all building works due to inadequate personnel, stressing that “some people carry out construction at night”.

Kenya’s building regulator reached 7,835 sites in 2015 in a nationwide inspection that suspended 2,000 works. The whip, which was blind to the developer and investment, cracked on all errant builders including the KSh 1.7 billion Juja City mall, Central bank’s office block at Ruaraka, and National Social Security Fund’s Mlimani apartments on State House road.

The real question that must engage actors in Kampala is: “What level of professional and human capacity is required to decisively regulate building works?”

With Kampala’s masons paid an average of Shs 4,000 per day in 2015 compared to Kenyan urban construction workers making up to KShs 500 (about Shs 15,000) two years ago, chances of cheerless labour rates playing into quality are elevated. Remuneration aside, inexpert workers pose a liability to safe dwellings.

When Kenya registered all builders in 2013, out of the estimated 10,000 contractors, only 2,000 were found to be qualified. In March 2013, Tanzania Bureau of Standards took the brunt of the blame when a 16-storey building along Indira Gandhi Street in Dar es Salaam came tumbling down after substandard steel bars gave way.

The incident, happening weeks after a four-storey building in Sinza collapsed, was a rude awakening to deceitful signboards. Whereas sites erected signboards naming professionals involved as required, developers had taken to hiring cheaper masonry, steel workers, electricians who they deployed on site after buying stickers of respective professionals meant to manage the works.

Concerned about malls in Kampala collapsing under the weight of high interest rates in 2014 when dollar loans attracted 11% and local currency developers borrowed at 23%, Ugandan builders engaged the central bank over slashing interest rates for property developers. Pressed against high lending rates in Kenya, the building sector’s bad loans rose highest in the first quarter of 2015 to 28% from KShs 9.9 billion to KShs 12.9 billion.

After Kenya introduced a 0.5% levy on construction works in 2014, the regulator took the flak for thwarting property development. However, having raised KShs 1 billion by 2016, plans are underway to institute a revolving fund for small contractors to access loans of up to KShs 5 million at interest rates between 4% and 6%, making it cheaper than banks charging 16% to 17%.

The sturdiness of Mombasa’s 400-year-old Fort Jesus mirrors the price of quality unmatched among Kampala’s imposing plazas. When Tororo contractors recently bemoaned the lack of means to ascertain quality of cement they use following arrests of people repackaging adulterated cement in Tororo Cement bags, it is buildings at risk.

Notwithstanding pre-export verification, how robust is our standardization architecture to protect developers from substandard materials? Unlike Uganda Revenue Authority, Uganda’s standards agency deployed at only 17 of the entry points over an eight-hour schedule in 2014 while the tax collector maintained a 24-hour presence at all 54 entry points.

To circumvent second-rate supplies, Kenya is mulling over legislation, which seeks to legally impel construction of more than three floors to rely on concrete mix delivered by cement producers that have laboratories to test the required concrete standards. Although concrete quality alone is inadequate when sand, and ballast used in other phases are not sanctioned, the measure is a smart pointer to reinforcing quality of building materials.

Issuance of a construction permit in Tanzania is pegged to a mandatory pre-construction inspection before excavation to ascertain firmness of soil depending on the proposed structure.

To commence construction, city council’s inspection has to approve the foundation, concrete, and slab for the superstructure. Tanzania’s procedure is a stark reminder that each phase’s faithfulness to safety, including the often-ignored siting, counts for the ultimate safety of buildings.

Stemming the tide of building construction failures in Uganda rests not only on approving structural designs but, rather, compels multifaceted action on all fronts that bear on construction.

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