Development Wears a Corrugated Metal Roof

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.

11 thoughts on “Development Wears a Corrugated Metal Roof”

  1. I hope development is not being curtailed by donors’ preference for the idyllic and picturesque. But I do remember telling an elderly lady once that I thought it must have been just AMAZING to grow up, as she had, in a sod-roofed house like this:

    I ran through some purported advantages, which I had gleaned from The Whole Earth Catalogue or similar back-to-the land publication: “Cool in summer!”. She then told me about the experience of spiders falling into your hair, dirt dropping from the ceiling into your soup, and, of course nematodes. She was never happier than the day she moved out of there and got a wood ceiling.

    It makes me feel like donating a corrugated roof to somebody.

  2. I spent some time with an indigenous community in Chiapas. Corrugated metal roofs were everywhere– but they make houses HOT as hell during the day. Thatched roofs are normally higher (as you see in the picture) and much fresher, so many people opt out of tin.

  3. Thatch roofs leak during the rainy season , splatter you in debris and become colonies for all kind of bugs and insects . Corrugated metal roofs are better , cheap , easy to build and maintain , One problem though if you live in a sunny hot climate , they convert the home into an oven. There are however I believe corrugated roofs which are made of some kind of fibre which are as good as the metal ones but keep the housespace fresh.

  4. Quico, I understand your point about giving people cash directly as a way to improve their well-being.Especially, if we believe people are rational agents and whatnot.

    However, as you say, real development should improve the incomes of people, so once the program is gone, everyone continues to benefit. I’m not sure if you have mentioned so far, how development programs can achieve this.

    If I had to guess, one way would be to tackle public health problems like the Gates foundations does. If the poor depend on their own labor for their income, the less time they spend sick the more time they can work and so on. Another idea would be to build infrastructure like roads like you mentioned before.

    So it seems development programs should basically step in where the state is too weak (rural areas in Africa). what do you think?

  5. If you visit Rwanda, you’ll notice: the “Corrugated Metal Roof” project has basically been done by the Rwandan government. Their Guca Nyakatsi (goodbye thatch) campaign made thatch roofs illegal (not without controversy or allegations of force) around 2011. Now, Rwandan roofs are all metal or tiled.

  6. Reblogged this on Under African skies and commented:
    On the drive north from Addis we saw lots of houses, traditional built with thatched roofs. All very picturesque. However, in the towns everything has a tin rood, including our own bungalow. Here is a very interesting post from a blog that I follow avidly about this very topic. Food for thought.

  7. check out this wonderful campaign for thatch made from repurposed bottles cut into strips. They are trying to get off the ground. These roofs will combine the advantage of thatch – air flow, not turning the house into an oven – with the solidity and protection of corrugated tin.
    they need help getting out the word.

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