This issue on affordable housing is one that I find interest in as a Materials Engineer. A country with an under-developed materials industry should not even dream of providing affordable homes. By materials industry, I mean Steel, Aluminum & Ceramic including Glass. 

Cement, tiles, steel rods and Aluminum roofing sheets are the predominant conventional materials for the construction of homes in Ghana but yet the most expensive aside labor cost. We have abundance of raw materials for processing into the aforementioned products but we are yet to have an integrated industry around them.

Take Steel for instance, we have over 1.7bn tons of iron ore reserve at Oppon Manso, Sheini, Akpafu and Lolobi. Abundance of clay, Silica, Limestone and kaolin abound in the Eastern, Central and Greater Accra regions for the ceramic industry. Bauxite abounds in Nyinahini and Kyebi. Unfortunately, in the abundance of all these, the average Ghanaian still can't find a place to call his home because we are battling a 1.8M housing deficit.

Heat or Electricity

Materials processing demands high heat. For instance, it takes an average 1800ºc to process iron ore into steel, 1450ºc to process Limestone into clinker and 800ºc to smelt aluminum. Obviously, a lot of heat is needed for these processes. This heat energy can be provided by Coal, Electricity or Gas. There's a worldwide concern for the use of coal for environmental reasons. And even if we decide to use coal which is relatively cheaper, it must be imported. 

In the case of electricity, Investments by government and Independent Power Producers has resulted in Ghana having excess generation capacity however the high cost of industrial electricity has been the bane of materials processing in Ghana. 

The use of Electricity

The current steel industry in Ghana relies on scrap materials and wreckages as raw material and not iron ore. Electric Arc furnace is what is used to melt the scrap metals into molten steel and then molded into shapes for construction works. Valco's Aluminum smelting plant has been operating below 50% capacity because it solely relies on "expensive" electricity. 

Also, Clinker, the main component of cement is largely imported. There is just about one clinker plant in Ghana, even that, it relies on imported coal for its high energy demand. The high cost of electricity makes clinker production an economically unwise venture in Ghana. Obviously the high cost of industrial energy and import charges account for the instability in the price of conventional construction materials.

The way forward

Steel is produced from iron ore by the blast furnace process which uses coal or the Electric Arc furnace which uses electricity. It is intriguing to note that the energy requirement for materials processing is heat and not necessarily electricity. 

In simple terms, electricity is only used to generate heat same as coal. So as a medium to long term solution, instead of continuously burning our abundance natural gas in thermal plants to produce electricity for onward supply to homes, industry and for materials processors to use to generate heat for their processes, Investments in gas infrastructure thus storage, processing and transport will rather provide available, cheap (gas) and direct burning fuel (energy) for our steel, Aluminum and ceramic (Cement clinker, Tiles etc.) industry. 

By so doing a large proportion of our processed natural gas will provide enough affordable energy to help process our iron ore into affordable steel, process our limestone into clinker locally and our bauxite into Aluminum sheets etc. This will then ensure we have cheap conventional materials to build TRULY affordable homes.

Seth Panyin Boamah

Engineer, Writer and Social Change Advocate

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