Could 3D printed schools help improve education in Africa?


  • Children in Salima, central Malawi, began their education at a new 3D printed school that was built in just 15 hours.
  • The school can accommodate 50 students and was built with layers of concrete placed by a computer-controlled nozzle.
  • 14Trees chief executive François Perrot said 3D printing could be “transformative” in tackling the lack of space in classrooms in Africa.
  • Companies are currently working to improve the affordability of this method so that it can be used more widely.

Gathered under the scorching sun, dozens of women danced and sang in jubilation as children from Salima village in central Malawi began their first day at their new 3D printed school, which had been built from zero in just 15 hours.

Made of poured concrete layer by layer using a computer-controlled nozzle, the school consists of a single room with rounded corners and is large enough to accommodate 50 students.

Olipa Elisa said her 10-year-old son had to walk 5 km (3 miles) every day to the nearest school, often arriving late and exhausted.

“I am very happy that we now have a school closer to my home, and my child will not have to make the long trip,” said Elisa, 38. “What we need are these learning blocks to accommodate other classes.”

Managed by 14Trees, a joint venture between Swiss cement maker LafargeHolcim and UK development finance agency CDC Group, the project was faster, cheaper and more energy efficient than conventional construction, said 14Trees chief executive François Perrot.

these students are sitting inside their new 3D printed school, built to accommodate up to 50 students, in Salima, Malawi

The new 3D printed school in Salima, Malawi.

Image: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Charles Pensulo

Its success shows how transformative 3D printing could be in Africa, where there is a serious shortage of classroom space, he said.

UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, estimates 36,000 primary school classrooms are missing in Malawi alone, a gap that Perrot says could be closed in 10 years with technology 3D printing.

“Based on our calculations, if we rely on conventional methods, it would take about 70 years to clear this backlog,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an email.

Large-scale 3D printing is gaining momentum around the world, with some projects producing a home in just 24 hours of print time for a few thousand dollars.

By the time 14Trees had built the Salima School – which the company said was the first 3D printed school in Malawi – it had already printed the walls of a prototype house in the capital Lilongwe in just 12 hours, compared to nearly four days using methods.

In addition to reducing the time it takes to build a structure, 3D printing also reduces the amount of materials needed and the amount of carbon emissions produced by up to 70% compared to conventional methods, Perrot said.

As an example of the potential cost savings, he pointed to “ink,” a dry mixture of cement, sand, and additives that is mixed with water to form the concrete used to print the walls.

Perrot said the ink could be made in Malawi instead of being imported, as was the case with the pilot school project.

“Making the ink on the ground will drastically reduce the cost of the building for buyers and create local manufacturing jobs,” he said.

“We (also) now have a fully trained indigenous Malawian team to operate the printer. “

“Double disadvantage”

Limbani Nsapato, country director of Edukans, an education-focused international development organization, said Africa’s classroom shortage is an urgent but neglected problem.

The average student-to-teacher ratio in Africa is 40 to 1, he said, but with only about 47,000 classrooms for almost 5,420,000 students, the ratio in Malawi is closer to 115: 1.

Overcrowded classrooms lead to poor quality education as teachers struggle to engage with every student in a class, he said.

To accommodate their large numbers of students, many schools move classes outside, but when the weather is bad, classes are often canceled, Nsapato said.

“Pupils who live far from school have a double disadvantage because in addition to being (stranded) in congested traffic, they also face the challenge of traveling long distances, which makes them late for class.” , he added.

“It makes them tired when they get to school, which makes it difficult for them to concentrate. These students often drop out or repeat a year because of poor performance. “

Another company trying to solve this problem is Studio Mortazavi, a global architectural firm that designed a 3D printed school in Fianarantsoa, ​​a town in southern Madagascar, for the American nonprofit Thinking Huts. .

The school, which is due to be built next year, will be made of concrete and local building materials and powered by solar energy, said Amir Mortazavi, founder of Studio Mortazavi.

The project will include several modules that can perform different functions, including as classrooms, science labs and dance studios.

Maggie Grout, founder and CEO of Thinking Huts, which is also working with 14Trees on the school project in Madagascar, said 3D printing should make the project scalable while reducing carbon emissions.

But first, the organization needs to make sure it can get the printer to remote rural areas where classrooms are needed the most, so it is currently working on streamlining the printing process on a campus. university in Madagascar, she said.

“Once we launch the first school and more people know about our vision, we hope to conceptualize a new printer specially created to be more easily transported to the communities we work with,” Grout said in an email.


Catherine Sani, director of the Institute of Architects of Malawi, worries that 3D printing may not be the economical solution she is presented.

“Considering our glaring need for fast classrooms, this would indeed appear to be a good option given the speed of production,” she said.

“However, we also note (that) this method is fast at one site, but for multiple sites more 3D printing equipment would be required, which would make this system very expensive compared to other methods.”

As companies strive to make 3D printing more portable and affordable, Tom Bowden, administrator of UK charity Building Malawi, said the technology holds promise in parts of the world where lack of funding can often block or kill critical infrastructure projects.

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His organization builds schools, libraries and sports facilities which are run by Malawian organizations.

Using building bags of dirt or bricks and mortar, it costs around $ 20,000 to build a double classroom, Bowden said.

“The costs are high, we really can’t find cheaper solutions for the concrete floors, tin roof, and metal window frames (and) our construction process takes around 10 weeks, depending on specification,” did he declare.

Considering all of these issues, “3D printing looks interesting,” he said.


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