Awards 1990 The Williamson Tea Award for Social Progress

The Williamson Tea Award for Social Progress

J.P.M. Parry and Associates

If you want a new roof and you live near 0werri in Nigeria, your best course is to visit the lepers of Uzuakoli. They make and sell lightweight concrete tiles for less than the price of corrugated iron.

Since the tiles are made from local materials (cement, sand and chopped fibre), the supply is reliable. Nigerians from Port Harcourt drive 150 miles to buy them.

The Uzuakoli leprosy hospital formerly depended entirely on overseas and local charities. But six years ago, with the help of a determined project manager and equipment bought from J.P.M. Parry and Associates of Cradley Heath, West Midlands, the lepers started making bricks and roof tiles - at first to repair the war-damaged hospital and later for sale. They overcame desperate physical handicaps and regained self-respect.

In the growing cities of the developing world, the thatched roof is on the way out because of fire risk and the short life and depleted sources of thatch. Clay tiles require clay, not found everywhere, and scarce firewood for manufacture. Being heavy, they require stout roof timbers and cannot profitably be carried far. Corrugated iron requires only light timber but usually has to be imported, is noisy in the rain, gives no protection from heat or cold and has a life of at most ten years through rusting. Yet an efficient roof is essential if a house is to stand the weather.

Parrys, set up by John Parry, first designed a system for small-scale brickmaking. Then they set out in 1977 to develop one for roofs. The equipment needed to be robust, easy to use and maintain, and affordable by small entrepreneurs. The result, after six years of experiment, was the Parry fibre-concrete roof tile, only a third the weight of clay for a similar area. A fibreless formula has also been developed.

The tiles are long-lasting, though easier to break than clay tiles; but they can easily be replaced. They can form a roof on crude poles, without sawn timber. Parrys sell a small vibrating table (powered by a car battery or by hand) from which a cement screed is drawn over a mould to give it a profile. The Parry process enables unskilled workers to make a sound roofing tile of even thickness. The vibration allows both a lean mix and a thin tile, so saving both cement and supporting timber.

Equipment can be bought for 1,000 but the most popular package, which enables two workers to produce about 80 square metres of roof a week, costs about 3,000. The tilemaking equipment offers a roof up to 50 per cent cheaper than corrugated iron (the percentage varying from place to place). Launched in 1984, Parry tiles are now being made in about 50 countries, and Parrys have followed up with equipment to make other building materials.

Tilemakers can be trained within a day. Technical training for running a tilemaking business, from materials selection to roof-laying, needs a course of about a week with a Parry agent.

Agents have to be carefully selected and trained. A network of agents is being built up but interest in the tilemaking has tended to run ahead of organised marketing. Tilemakers in new countries send trainees to regional centres or even to Cradley Heath, sometimes with help from aid donors.

Successful new technology gets copied. The chief danger, according to Parrys, is that local imitations wilI produce second-rate tiles and thus damage public confidence. Parrys seek to guard against this by building up technical support in each country and by developing and refining the equipment.

The largest single tilemaking operation so far is run by a women's co-operative in Mathare Valley, a shanty settlement outside Nairobi. When fibre-concrete roofing was specified for 1,700 middle-income homes at nearby Koma Rock, the recently formed Humama (Band of Mothers) Co-operative set up in business to make the tiles. With a loan from the African Housing Fund, they bought nine machines and, working double shifts, produced up to 4,200 tiles (323 square metres of roof) a day.

Parrys' Kenya associates provided training, procurement, technical supervision and quality control. Humama made a surplus, after loan payments, of 25,000 in the first year which is being spent on welfare projects in Mathare. Humama shows how, with the right equipment and a little help, the gulf between modern and traditional economies can be bridged.

Robin Spence of Cambridge University has raised the question whether developing countries should depend on British equipment for their fibre-concrete roofing. Parrys reply that, while local manufacture of equipment will come and some components are already made locally, they would not recommend it before the tiles are really well established in the local market.

A referee writes that the building industry world-wide puts little into research and development, partly because innovations are easy to copy and partly because the many small companies cannot afford it. "John Parry is a refreshing and unique exception to this rule."

See also Kenya Resources