A green, concrete future: Harnessing local materials in Uganda

By Georgia Tindale

Dutch company, Concreet Projectmanagement B.V., joined forces with Ugandan company, Eco Concrete Ltd., to tackle the ever-growing issue of developing sustainable and affordable building infrastructure. Their solution? Creating new recipes for one of the world’s most common building materials: concrete. With the right backing, their geopolymer technology has the potential to go global.

Concrete surrounds us in our cities, houses, airports and sculptures – from Brazil’s most famous statue, Christ the Redeemer, to the towering Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Indeed, after water, concrete is the most widely used product in the world. However, ubiquitous usage of this building material comes with an environmental cost.

With an estimated 8-10% of global carbon dioxide emissions stemming from the use of the current dominant type of concrete, based on ordinary portland cement (OPC), and the expected exponential increase in concrete use in developing countries, such as Uganda, over the next decades, the environmentally-conscious amongst us recognise the need for a change. Thankfully, eco friendly solutions are already available. Technologies exist in the global market that can replace cement with alternative binding agents: geopolymer technology.

The environmental benefits of using geopolymer technology are numerous. To name just a few, these include reducing the amount of portland cement, being able to apply more locally available raw materials, such as sand and gravel (also beneficial for generating local employment) and reducing transportation and costs, resulting in markedly lower CO2 emissions.

Concrete samples in Uganda.jpeg

Despite the technology already being established, geopolymer-based products are not widely in use; specialised knowledge is needed and they are difficult to implement. Step in: Dutch company, Concreet Projectmanagement B.V. and Ugandan company, Eco Concrete Ltd., who teamed up in an international project to see how geopolymer-based products could be used in the Ugandan market.

Successful cross-continental sampling

“Getting the results back from the lab is always a great moment because that proves you are right: it is a sense of relief that the theory is coming through and you can see it really happening. It is both motivating and reassuring.” – van Leersum

With the project taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic and a period of prohibitive travel restrictions, the practicalities of carrying out important on-the-ground work in Uganda, such as sampling and transporting local materials being explored as potential alternative binder systems (like volcanic ash and clay) were, unsurprisingly, difficult. The Dutch team were unable to visit Uganda throughout the whole Innowwide project. However, they were appreciative of their Ugandan colleagues, who happily stepped up on this front.

Despite these obstacles, Concreete Projectmanagement director and partner (and Innowwide project lead), Alexander van Leersum, is effusive about the results. “Even though it took a little longer than we wanted, we managed to bag and ship it all, and then we received really positive results back in the lab. We saw that these natural resources are reactive if you pretreat them and find the right activator mix. In short, we found out that Ugandan raw materials can be used as binder materials for geopolymer-products, and we have also identified several possible recipes. I don’t have to tell you what a great feeling this was to discover!”

International support keeps it simple

With a total of just 10 employees across the two teams working on the project, van Leersum is grateful for the bolstering offered by the Innowwide programme. When asked if he would recommend that other SMEs in his field apply to the funding programme, he answers yes.

Alexander van Leersum.jpeg

“The valuable quality about Innowwide is that the threshold for participating is relatively low, and Eureka are actively looking to minimise the administrative burden when executing your project. As a busy and time-poor SME, this is a huge help.”

Constructing a growth mindset

Although the geopolymer-based products remain in a proof-of-concept stage, there are many potential future expansions of this green binding technology to applications beyond housing construction, including supporting infrastructure, such as sewerage, roads, railroads, pavements and more.

Indeed, as the demand for construction continues to climb exponentially in developing countries, putting these workable, affordable and sustainable solutions into practice might sound like a major ask for any SME. However, for van Leersum, there is an important mindset and perspective shift needed in how the world conducts its business. This could drive us towards producing effective solutions with positive environmental impacts.

“We need to let go of thinking in scarcity and fear when it comes to these environmental issues and in how we conduct business, and start thinking about abundance, availability and sharing”, he explains.

“Once we share, we start creating new opportunties and dynamics, which help generate new, globally applicable solutions, as our collaboration in Uganda has shown. It is not going to be a walk in the park. It is obviously a massive challenge, and that is part of both life and growth, which I welcome with open arms.” – van Leersum

Building a new future

Looking ahead, it is is clear that Concreet Projectmanagement B.V.’s project has given insights into potential green cement opportunities and showcased the feasibility of using local materials. As for the next steps, these would entail pinpointing specific projects and products to make this technology into a concrete reality.

Concrete samples.jpeg

On a personal level, van Leersum is enthusiastic and committed to continuing with this venture, at the same time as stating that the long-term role of Concreet Projectmanagement B.V. for this particular endeavour remains somewhat uncertain.

“Change is driven by people. Long-term sustainable impact requires overlapping long-term company objectives. Concreet Projectmanagement B.V. will help find new partners to expand on the knowledge and networks we have already acquired in order to further strengthen these objectives. In the shorter term, our focus will be on new projects, such as the production of eco-friendly concrete products. As this technology has so much potential, I know there will be plenty of interested parties out there, so do get in touch today and see how we can make it into a reality together.”

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Posted 15 Jan 24