Most Westerners, looking at this image, would probably tell you the hut in the foreground “feels wrong” somehow. A lovely, traditional mud hut (this one is in Western Kenya, as it happens) shouldn’t have an ugly corrugated metal roof on it. It just…doesn’t look right.
Turns out thatch makes for gorgeous photos but lousy roofs.
It’s the hut in the background that looks the way an African hut should, doesn’t it? Organic materials, locally sourced, carbon neutral, the works.
Yet it turns out that when Kenyan villagers happen to get a lot of money at once, one of the first things they do is run out and buy a corrugated metal roof.
How can that be?
Last year, on This American Life, David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein covered this brilliantly (from 17:40).
Turns out thatch makes for gorgeous photos but lousy roofs. It’s not just that they leak and they harbour a variety of pests that can eat your crops or give you some nasty diseases, it’s that they need constant, costly, time-consuming maintenance.
Those ugly corrugated metal roofs solve a whole batch of problems at once. By lifting the need for ongoing purchases of thatch, they boost families’ disposable income.
But in the absence of working credit markets, the 300 bucks or so it costs to buy one is just beyond the means of the Bottom Billion.
So, it’s not surprising that when a very poor farmer happens on a windfall, there’s little question: a metal roof is top of their shopping list.
So my question is…why isn’t anyone running a Corrugated Metal Roofs for Africa projects? To look at that image is to answer the question. Metal roofs make for terrible photos. They shatter the sense of exoticism people want to invest in when they give to development projects.
Metal roofs may serve recipients’ interests, but they don’t serve donors interests. The reality is that donors just aren’t interested in development that’s dull, prosaic, grubby looking.
Which is just as well. In the end, yet another Niche Development agency – Metalheads for Metalroofs! – is the last thing we need.
Initiatives like Give Directly, the Development World’s flavour du jour, do far better by just giving people money and letting them decide what their priorities are. If making the lives of the poor better is your priority, you really can’t do better than that.
From a Boring Development point of view, the ultimate goal has to be not just a one-time splurge, but improving incomes.
In the end, the world’s poorest people may want a shiny metal roof, but what they need the same thing everyone does: better, steadier incomes so they can make their own choices not just now, but into the future. Solve that problem, and the metal roofs will follow.