How One Architecture Firm Built A Sustainable Building In Rural Rwanda

The Women’s Opportunity Center tries to give female farmers a chance to become entrepreneurs selling to urban buyers. But first, they had to build a suitable headquarters, without the conveniences of building in the developed world.

Rural Rwandan farmers, many of whom are women, lack a market for their goods, except in a city that’s a major trek away. The Women’s Opportunity Center hopes to solve that by becoming a central meeting place that splits the distance between urbanites who would buy the goods and those farmers; it will also serve as a place for these rural entrepreneurs to incubate their businesses into more than just subsistence farming operations–with a little help, many can be family profitable ventures.


But setting up a business incubator in a war torn third-world country means also solving old school problems like the generations of reliable power, plumbing, clean water, and adequate cooling first. That’s the second exceptional premise of the WOC, which is backed by Women for Women International, and recently opened near Kigali, the capital of Rwanda. “This was an opportunity to merge design with development,” says Afshan Khan, the president and CEO of Women for Women International. The idea was to create both a place and business plan that “helps sustain local economies at the local level.”

The WOC has been designed to meet the region’s mostly subsistence farmers on their own turf by locating in a valley between farms and the smaller city of Kayonza, which is several miles further out— a nightmare for those who would otherwise have to walk there. The center should provide new opportunities by acting as a commercial farming technique training center and destination space–the equivalent of a permanent farmer’s market where city-dwellers can connect with those selling fresh food and other locally-produced garments and baskets. It will both let farmers create cash crops and help urbanites finally have access to fairly priced fresh food like tomatoes, beans, mangoes, and pineapples for their own tables.

The site can accommodate about 300 students at a time. There are classrooms, the central market, and some dorms for trainees that will hike in from places too far to commute back to daily. There is additional stall space that can be rented to other merchants as the WOC becomes a shopping, social, and cultural destination. Over time, the hope is to lift the nutrition, the standard of living, career opportunities, and thus the economic prospects of more than 28,000 women in the region.

Most importantly, the entire building is largely sustainable. Conceived and executed pro-bono by NY-based Sharon Davis Design, it is built on a one-acre plot of land for less than $2 million—a sum that if privately financed, could eventually be paid back from future revenues. Founder Sharon Davis envisions this as a new model for how eco-buildings erected in places without traditional building materials or utilities might work. “The project is really about working with what they have for what they need in a very cohesive, holistic way,” she says.

Here are four major challenges the start-up faced, and Davis’s own on-the-road videos, which chronicle the creative ways she helped solve them:

Problem: It’s costly and hard to transport building materials. Plus, traditional materials like drywall trap heat, making places without air conditioning particularly uncomfortable.


Solution: Women from the region made their own, using the region’s ample clay and a manual brick press to construct more than 450,000 blocks. The bricks were used to create circular buildings that resemble traditional woven-reed dwellings—spaces between the bricks provide ample holes for cross-breezes, which help cool the dwellings. In exchange for their labor, those workers learned a new trade; they’ve since formed a brick-making collective that sells to local contractors.

Problem: Finding fresh, clean water. Most people in Rwanda don’t live past 50, in large part due to waterborne illness. In rural areas, collecting water from rivers and swamps isn’t just unsanitary, it is incredibly time consuming, limiting chances for additional work.

Solution: The WOC has pitched corrugated metal roofs to funnel rainwater into cisterns. A solar-powered pump then pushes it into a water tower, which has grey water and ultra violet filtration systems. Using solar power might seem smart, but Davis limited it to the pump only because the tech comes with a steep learning curve; to be independent, villagers need to know how to fix and maintain it.

Problem: Sanitary waste disposal. Without maintained plumbing in the area, many Rwandans use “pit latrines”–rudimentary outhouse that can affect ground water quality and cause disease.

Solution: The WOC uses composting toilets that not only help contain the waste better, but break it down into fertilizer that can be re-used on-site or sold to other farmers, something that’s particularly important because soil quality has been so depleted by decades of heavy use.

Problem: No heat source for cooking. In Rwanda, firewood fuels lots of primitive cooking practices, contributing to widespread deforestation. Gathering wood takes valuable time and energy.


Solution: Currently, the WOC buys natural gas for its stoves. That’s slated to change later this year, when the facility adds livestock to its demonstration farm and starts harvesting the manure for methane, which can be piped easily uphill to the kitchen. With cheap biofuel converters, it’s a practice small farmers can adopt at home. (The basic math: For a family of four, one cow’s output provides enough energy to fire up one hot meal per day, Davis says.) Meanwhile, the WOC is working with the Rwandan government to add an on-site food processing facility. It will be yet another way to keep the farm economy growing.