Women in Housing: Developing affordable housing in the Global South

Posted: 25th August 2021 Cassidy Curls, Consultant

Altair is committed to sharing the successes and learnings we observe in our work with clients. As part of the “Women in the Housing: 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 developing affordable housing.

Marie-Odile Zanders on bridging the investment – entrepreneurial gap to develop affordable housing in the Global South.

Marie-Odile Zanders is based in the Netherlands and is a founding director at Casa Real, a social enterprise creating affordable housing opportunities in the Global South for the working poor in Mozambique. She has spent over 20 years developing affordable housing, making it a reality for many while working in business, non-profit, financial services and with international institutions.

Marie-Odile Zanders on developing affordable housing

Marie-Odile Zanders on developing affordable housing

About Marie

Marie is an engineer by trade and spent the early part of her career on the technical side of construction and innovation in the developing world. As a young engineer, Marie worked on sanitation projects in India. There she learned the capacity and strength of communities to come together to make projects happen – often in despite of poorly organised municipal support by government.

Marie also realised through her work in sanitation that in practice, families were being asked to choose between elements which supported basic living conditions. It dawned on her that developing attractive, affordable and holistic housing would mean families didn’t have to make these hard choices – and that a quality housing solution promoted shelter but also the health and safety of residents.

Throughout this work, it was apparent that the way to deliver, scale and replicate housing solutions, was not with development aid funding as the sole solution. A middle way, which embraced entrepreneurship while keeping costs at affordable levels for average earners, would be required to make an impact.

This view was reinforced when Marie was asked by Kecia Rust of Africa’s premier housing research agency – Centre for Affordable Housing Finance or CAHF – to undertake research for setting up an affordable housing developers academy.

Mozambique – a Housing Market without Housing Finance?

In a study undertaken with Shelter Afrique, it was revealed that only a handful of developers are in operation throughout Africa and building no more than a couple hundred homes per year. These homes, built through formal supply chains, are mostly purchased by the elite – those with access to mortgages (either in Mozambique – with interest rates as high as 20% or from abroad) and who have the ability (the time and money) to secure legal land titles.  What does a housing market look like in a country with a population of 30 million but only 600 mortgages?

For the vast majority (approximately 95% of the population), informal, incremental self-build is the status quo. The quality of this housing varies – but is often characterised by earthen floors, sheet metal or natural roofs and mud or cement block walls. The homes are often subject to damage by flooding and wind from storms including cyclones, growing more prevalent as the country is increasingly exposed to changing weather patterns as the result of global climate change.

This is the reality in Mozambique, where Marie’s innovative housing development business is operating.

But things are changing. Governments realise the potential housing has for economic productivity (housing is often used as a mechanism for massive jobs programmes) or for developing wealth among its people (governments are increasingly looking at land title reform to promote bankable assets)

Marie explains that this transition resembles what happened to housing markets in late 19th century Europe. Housing, once seen as a charitable or employment-tied product – provided by churches or industrialists, was becoming an institutionalised sector, supported by government policy and funding and crowding in private finance.

Europe today has had 100+ years to streamline its housing market ecosystem with a focus on property ownership – either by landlords or by owner-occupiers – and as a result commoditisation. Some developing nations in the Global South, are reforming its housing market ecosystem to support a similar, albeit accelerated, transition.

In the meantime, developers like Casa Real are working within the existing constraints to develop viable solutions.

In Marie’s view, success of building an impactful business in these challenging market conditions requires two things – bringing together patient capital with skilled entrepreneurs and developing demand – namely by convincing would-be purchasers that the transition to formally build housing is a worthwhile investment.

Bringing finance and suppliers together

With ultra-low returns becoming the norm across the world, financiers are increasingly interested in investing in Africa’s emerging housing market. However, Marie notes that many of these funders do not feel there are bankable opportunities, even though in her experience the market for affordable housing is certainly there in Africa. The issue is that funders need to find ways to engage efficiently at the local level. Often, despite developing innovative and potentially suitable solutions, even very experienced and capable suppliers struggle to produce viable business plans which investors will sign on to as they often only want to engage from an investment size of $10 million upwards.

Marie feels strongly that building capacity and knowledge – in particular to support those to produce viable, fundable business plans –, complemented with investments based on affordable terms and conditions, needs to happen.

Finding investment – even for proven and deliverable models – is still a challenge for entrepreneurs in Africa. But some innovations are being developed to help bridge the gap using technologies like  blockchain, smart-contracts and other state-of-the art crypto-tools. Marie has recently begun working with Empowa, who is developing a better solution than centralised finance structures currently offer – including by introducing frameworks to reduce the burden of ultra-high interest rates (up to 30%!) and other structural barriers.

Combined with the right type of expertise and other support, products like the one Empowa is developing can kick-start established and new organisations to become more active in the affordable housing market on the continent.

It is her hope that shared learning and mentorship, especially from those in more developed and mature sectors, combined with innovative and affordable finance, will help develop the pipeline of future investable projects.

Developing the demand market

Marie learned early on in her career that low-income individuals may not be able to access formal finance solutions but will access funds from social networks if the product is right.

Developing attractive, aspirational but affordable housing in the Global South is key.

Homes offer the potential to promote health and wellbeing in a variety of different ways. In 2019, Beira was hit by Cyclone Idai, one of the worst tropical cyclones on record. Despite the vast majority of buildings in Beira sustaining heavy damage or destruction, damage to Casa Real’s homes was minimal, with only the roofing sheets needing repair. The reassurance of safety that Casa Real homes provide, because of their climate-mitigating properties, is, and will continue to be, an important benefit to households and other stakeholders.

Marie also reminds us that developing an attractive and culturally acceptable home is also important. This means the best developers know their markets, and their products take local requirements into consideration throughout the design.

Marie’s advice for women who want to work in affordable housing

Marie is passionate about her work and feels that international affordable housing is a vast sector with lots of opportunities for women – engineering, finance, supply chain, enterprise and project finance skills are all in demand.

She encourages those working on international and domestic projects to get hands on exposure working on a project to help understand the practical challenges, and to develop ways of working through them.

Working internationally, travelling and working across time zones can sometimes prevent a traditional home life, however Marie choses to work in emerging economies, contributing to the building blocks of a new sector to provide herself with an exciting, challenging and fulfilling career.


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.

Fatou Dieye on affordable housing and sustainability, and her recent projects in Rwanda.

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