Women in Housing: Interview with Fatou Dieye on Housing and Sustainability in Rwanda

Posted: 12th August 2021 Cassidy Curls, Consultant

A compelling discussion with Fatou Dieye, expert on housing and sustainability, and her recent projects in Rwanda.

Altair is committed to sharing the successes and learnings we observe in our work with clients. As part of the “Women in the Housing Business: Inspiring International Leaders you should know about” series, our research and insights lead Cassidy Curls sits down with international female leaders from across the housing sector to learn about and share their experiences.

In the third interview of the series, we feature Fatou Dieye, former Regional Coordinator on PROECCO Program, Skat Consulting and an expert on affordable housing and sustainable cities. Based in Kigali (Rwanda), Fatou takes a strategic focus on the use of local materials and labour for sustainable urban design and management and has spent the last eight years of her career developing sustainable, affordable housing solutions fit for communities in Africa’s Great Lakes (Rwanda, Burundi and DR Congo).

Career path and background

Fatou holds advanced degrees in architecture, urban planning and sustainability management from Princeton and Columbia Universities.  She started her career as an intern for a small design firm in France, a country where architecture is inseparable from a deep reflection on the City, its People and the Environment. Back in the United States, she accepted a position as an urban designer for the New York Department of City Planning, where she gained practical experience in shaping spaces and places for the city’s vibrant and diverse urban communities.

With a Senegalese father, Fatou felt drawn to Africa early in career. The untimely passing of her mentor – who had always pushed her to embrace new opportunities and take chances – encouraged Fatou to embrace her African heritage and take a leap, and a big one at that. In 2013, she moved from the USA to Rwanda to join the City of Kigali’s Office of Urban Planning and Construction One Stop Centre as the Team Leader of the newly-formed Neighbourhood and Affordable housing Development Unit. In 2013, Kigali was entering into a period of intense transformation – so it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to join the team leading the development and implementation of the city’s new masterplan, with a specific focus on the housing and neighbourhoods needed for communities to prosper.

Fatou spent the next three years advising technical teams in the development of neighbourhood plans and working with consultants, local authorities and the World Bank to prepare Rwanda’s information settlement upgradation pilot project. While there was a lot of enthusiasm and support for the work, persistent challenges related to low purchasing power, weak local building material supply chains and limited construction and end-user financing, frustrated the City’s efforts in creating the enabling environment for a private-sector driven affordable housing program.

Housing and Sustainability in Rwanda

Photos courtesy of @Skat Consulting Rwanda, Ltd.

If people can’t live well then you can’t have prosperous and healthy sustainable, urban growth. It was this that drove me to focus on urban housing specifically and enabled the full circle of strategic thinking from the building materials to the people.”

When an opportunity arose for Fatou to join Skat Consulting Ltd., a Swiss consulting firm responsible for the implementation of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation’s Promoting off-farm employment through the production of climate-friendly construction materials program (PROECCO), she jumped at the chance to tackle one of the housing supply chain’s primary bottlenecks, namely how to find and manufacture affordable, durable building materials for the mass supply of quality, safe urban housing.

In 2018, Fatou and the PROECCO team inaugurated Phase 1 of the Kimisagara Housing Demonstration Block, an affordable housing pilot scheme showing what low-cement clay brick walling solutions and good design could do to upgrade informal housing settlements and create high-quality housing for low-income urban communities. The houses were built and distributed according to a land swap system, enabling local landowners to provide their land as equity in exchange for one or more housing units making up the two-story block. The entire housing block, consisting of eight units in total, was constructed at a cost of Rwf100m (c. $101k or £72k). Phase 2, which was completed in 2020, added two additional units in a 5-story tower configuration.

Housing and Sustainability in Rwanda

Photos courtesy of @Skat Consulting Rwanda, Ltd.

“Housing and Sustainability in Rwanda is the biggest Rubik’s Cube to solve as there are so many influencers: land, people, materials, it goes on. And the challenge is to be able to deliver it in budget and at mass scale.”

For the beneficiary landowners, the PROECCO project made a remarkable impact on their lives. Homes are no longer subject to destruction from heavy rains and flooding. Indoor, clean-fuel cooking systems have replaced open fires. Families have safe, tenure-secure housing to call their own.

The next step was to take the concept and turn it into a regional solution, and Fatou has seen success advocating for the PROECCO system. As people are able to see what is possible, the pilot became a blueprint both for improvement and for expansion to housing and sustainability sites across Rwanda and also in surrounding countries of Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi.

Before the scheme was developed, many doubted the quality of housing that could be achievable under £142/m2 ($200/m2) all in. This is no surprise given the usual build costs in Kigali, with taxes and labour, are a minimum of £320/m2 ($450/m2). When people saw what was possible at that price, the concept really begun to take hold. To date, more than 2,000 dwelling units inspired by the PROECCO demonstration house have sprouted across the region and the City of Kigali incorporated the typology into its revised Master Plan. Such was the support from local authorities that by June 2020 it was decided with the City of Kigali to expand the project to 3 neighbourhoods, each with 100 new dwelling units.

In order to better engage the communities, consultation meetings and regular exchange with landowners has been built into the process. Compensation for existing property is also being done in a participatory fashion, with each landowner providing input into the size and configuration of their new home (how many bedrooms? Should there be tenant accommodation? Ground floor? First floor?). By capitalizing on the flexibility inherent in the PROECCO designs and construction technologies, the houses serve as a cost-effective bottom-up tool for replanning dense neighbourhoods, while creating additional land value for property owners. If taken to scale, this type of development could create tens of thousands of building material production and construction jobs and trigger the owner-driven transformation of many African cities.

“That was one of my proudest moments, when others looked at our scheme and said ‘this could be for me’, and they copied it.

Housing and Sustainability in Rwanda

Figure 1: Via The New Times, October 2018


Housing and Sustainability in Rwanda

Rwanda is a unique country with unique housing-related challenges. The steep hills make it the most land scarce country on the continent and building and maintaining infrastructure is challenging and expensive. As a landlocked nation, shipping costs for imports are high. Meanwhile people’s purchasing power is very low, with many non-urban households participating in subsistence agriculture as a way of life. Lack of stable, formal income and ultra-high interest rates make housing finance a rare option for most people. The task is identifying an affordable, local housing solution that can be rolled out at scale.

“Housing is a universal right, and we should see that people get it.”

In 2007 and 2008, the government of Rwanda legally dispersed the land to the people through a mass title scheme. While a real benefit to the people who have the titles and the value attributes to them, this put a squeeze on publicly available land for build and also makes any new development difficult as it requires intensive land assembly prior to commencement.

The workaround for land scarcity is density – but cultural challenges around accessibility and privacy make “apartment living” unattractive to many Rwandans who hold the view that their house should touch the earth. Shared entrances, kitchens and bathrooms are not accepted either which is a challenge for any designer. Cooking is traditionally done outside with house help. It begs the question – what does multifamily housing with a separate, outdoor cooking space look like?

And the climate change impact on housing in Kigali is significant. Seasonal changes in rain patterns mean some villages are wiped out in an instant due to flooding and unsuitable drainage infrastructure in informal settlements. This happened near to the Skat scheme in Kimisagara, and many of the surrounding homes faced considerable damage compared to the block.

Advice for aspiring women

Although Fatou was trained as an architect, her career has been shaped by an early work experience in product design, merchandising and distribution for a clothing company.  For Fatou, not only is housing a universal right, it is a consumer good.  Like a good pair of jeans, affordable housing requires design all along the value chain, from the architecture to the building materials and to the financing mechanisms required to build Africa’s next generation of green and inclusive cities, much like Housing and Sustainability in Rwanda.

“Careers are not in straight lines. There are so many ways to get into housing; it is important not to close off any doors by having blinkers on. You do not need to find a path to follow, if there is not one, forge your own.

Fatou has also embraced what she brings to the table – be that technical expertise or the softer skills around listening to and engaging with a community to truly understand their needs and red lines.

“Engineering and architecture are male dominated but when it comes to housing and sustainability in Rwanda, it is thought of as a woman’s domain, and so as a female professional you can get into the conversations. I have been allowed into rooms because I am a woman, although perhaps initially only to listen.

She recommends to women working internationally for them to really reflect on how to communicate a message to achieve the intended outcome or impact.  For example, sometimes this needs to come from you but other times it doesn’t. She says: “The best messages are communicated through a shared conversation and dialogue from the group or community where you are working”.

Applicable advice for all of us: Be aware of your audience and identify how to best communicate your message.


You can find our other “Women in Housing” articles here:

Saadiya Aminu on female empowerment and running a successful real estate business in Nigeria.

Anna Älgevik on the interplay between green urban development and society.

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