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This women-led startup is building sustainable houses in Senegal

DNA, a Thiés-based design and construction company started by three college students, is changing how people think about environmentally-friendly - and traditionally African - construction techniques.

by Maria Knodt

Growing up in Senegal's third-largest city, Thiés, situated some 70km east of Dakar, friends Mariama Djambony Badji and Papa Mafall Diop dreamed of becoming architects and of building houses.

"From an early age, we were both fascinated by buildings and how they are constructed – and we dreamed of starting a company together," Badjj recounted recently.

Senegal's post-colonial period has a strong architectural history. The country's first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor, was a proponent of an angular architecture he called "asymmetrical parallelism” - examples of which are still evident at the site of the country's 1974 International Fair in Dakar. Since 1966, Thiés has also been home to the Manufactures Sénégalaises des Arts Décoratifs, a tapestry factory where African design is a key element of the work.

However, after neither of the friends took architecture for their studies, their dream seemed to go adrift.

"I initially wanted to study architecture, but then I studied civil engineering, like Mafall," Badjj explained..

During her second year of university, Badjj and Christelle Auxencia Lebrun, a friend from her civil engineering course, began supporting Badjj's mother, who was setting up an IT learning centre. They offered to help to help with the accomodation.

"Once we arrived, we realized there were not enough rooms for all the students. So we thought about what we could do, and Christelle proposed that we could devise a plan to construct more rooms ourselves," Mariama remembers.

Luckily, Badjj was able to call on her childhood friend, Diop, for help.

"Despite going to different universities, we always stayed in touch," Badjj explained.

Diop said he would help. So, despite all three still being students, Badjj, Christelle, and Diop decided to start their own company, Design Engineering Architecture (DNA), in 2019.

Initially, it was difficult for the three to manage studying and working in parallel, and it took until 2020 for the enterprise to take off.

"When COVID started, we didn't have to go to university anymore physically, so we had more flexibility. We started building our offices in Thiés, and while supervising the workers on the site, we had our headphones in to take our online classes," Mariama said, with a laugh..

"We wanted to do things differently, though – create a more sustainable concept," she explained of their approach, which involves a technique using raw earth bricks and solar, rather than concrete and regular power. It is an approach that has now become synonymous with their company.

"Many people are skeptical; they believe using raw earth is not durable and (is) antiquated. It reminds them of huts in small villages," Badjj said, posing for photos at the site of one of the company's current projects.

Also known as rammed earth construction, raw earth construction has been used for millennia and can be seen in some of the most iconic and ancient buildings in the world - including the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali and parts of the Great Wall of China.

While it can require more maintenance than other materials, rammed earth is an environmentally-friendly approach to building that is gaining popularity around the world.

"Raw earth bricks keep a building cool naturally with their insulating properties, so there is much less need for air conditioning in Senegal's hot climate," Badjj explained.

In addition to decreasing a building's environmental footprint, raw earth bricks are also healthier for a building's inhabitants as they are produced without the chemical compounds used in other construction materials.

Globally, concrete production accounts for up to 8% of carbon dioxide emissions, according to think tank Chatham House. Raw earth offers a carbon-neutral alternative.

Nevertheless, it wasn't easy for the three young engineers, two of whom were women, to enter the traditionally-minded and male-dominated construction sector with a very non-traditional approach.

"We had to make an extra effort compared to other companies," Badjj admitted, adding that she still regularly asks co-founder Diop or another male colleague do attend on-site visits to supervise construction crews.

To date, DNA has been contracted to build ten buildings. Most are homes for private individuals, while some are buildings constructed for NGOs.

“As an NGO that works with women farmers, we wanted to create a building for fruit and vegetable processing that is natural and environmentally friendly. And we don’t need air conditioning” remarked a client.

Badjj and her team are very active on social media, where they try to demystify the usage of raw earth bricks. One video posted by the team shows DNA employees grinding red earth into fine particles, mixing it with water and compressing it into brick form with a machine.

DNA employs ten people full-time and another 35 temporarily on the construction sites. They try to include local residents who they train to build with raw earth. The trained construction workers then join a database of qualified raw earth workers who are available for new projects in the area, and who can maintain buildings as well as further educate their communities about raw earth construction.

The company has also begun receiving increasing numbers of training requests online. Badjj is convinced that raw earth construction has the potential to add a significant number of green jobs in Senegal.

She is also hopeful the technique will take off across West Africa. Their early success has prompted the company to start looking at other environmentally-friendly building techniques, too.

“We are not stuck on raw earth. We are also researching with other materials to find more sustainable and locally sourced alternatives to concrete,” she explained.

And while there are other companies in Senegal that are constructing raw earth buildings, such as Elementerre and Worofila, DNA’s unique selling proposition is that it offers services along the entire value chain, from design and the production of bricks, to construction, interior design and even, energy audits.

While increasing numbers of companies in the region are offering bioclimatic and ecological architecture, it remains a niche sector and will require support to become widely acceptable across the society.

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