Triple bottom line: An African business plan to benefit the environment, the community and the company

A house with an open gate in Maai Mahiu, Kenya. International Green Structures, a company that provides sustainable housing, has successfully introduced its business model in Africa and is poised to do the same in other countries. Photo by: teachandlearn / CC BY-NC-SA

Green technology has been advancing significantly in recent years, providing opportunities for virtually any business to be more responsible and environmentally conscious.

Still, striving to protect the environment can potentially hurt a company's profits, and negatively affect the local economy. This is particularly true in Africa, where developing countries are working to balance rapid economic growth with eco-friendly policies. Affordable housing is also lacking on the continent. From 2001 to 2014, there was a housing shortage of 60 million units.

Africa's population is growing, and quickly finding that there is nowhere to live.

Taking a new look at an old problem

International Green Structures was originally conceived as a provider of environmentally sound disaster housing for the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency. IGS pairs compressed agricultural fiber panels with a pre-engineered framing system, which can be made into a variety of designs called IGStructures. Because the panels are made from a sustainable agricultural resource left from the harvest of rice and wheat, they are virtually 100 percent green.

Sustainability was a priority from the start, but IGS did not initially have plans to extend overseas.

In June 2012, we decided to change the strategy of the business and introduce our mod to Africa. The major factor preventing our international expansion, the difficulty of operating on such a large scale as a relatively small company, turned into the main motivator. Since IGStructures are built with a predesigned frame, they have a replicable structure that can be built quickly and affordably using local labor. IGS was able to identify and work with local partners and gain government buy in, procure the sustainable product necessary to manufacture the CAF panels, coordinate the construction of a manufacturing facility and uncover the resources needed to develop skills training.

At every stage, more job opportunities are created and these jobs go to local workers, who either have the necessary skills or can be trained by IGS.

Prioritizing flexibility

The total economic model IGS has designed is suited to developing countries.

In a study conducted by IGS, it was determined that the 3,000 houses produced in one year will create about 1,700 jobs in the surrounding region. These positions become available in a variety of sectors from manufacturing facilities that produce the CAF panels and pre-engineered framing system, to the transportation companies that deliver the materials and the contractors who build them, but the ripple effects go even further.

CAF panels are composed of the wheat and rice residue that farmers would normally till or burn. By using that residue, the farmers are not only generating less carbon pollutants, they are also able to profit from the additional revenue source, which drives larger grain harvests, increased profits, and job creation. These benefits are in turn channeled back into their communities.

Creating value in every aspect

The business model IGS has developed is designed to adapt to a variety of regions and works because it relies on local workers and companies.

Through the partnerships we have created, we are able to expand our company and have an international impact. These partnerships also benefit the African communities we engage in by boosting farmer profits and creating significant job growth that positively impacts the country’s GDP. Most exciting of all, this model allows us to prioritize several eco-friendly strategies without sacrificing economic benefits. It is our hope that more companies will construct IGStructures and see how their products and services can be transplanted to Africa, in a cost-effective, environmentally responsible and socially impactful way.

Two years after moving into Africa, IGS is poised to prosper in several different countries. Our products can be transported from the manufacturing facility to the construction site and easily assembled in days. Since we use a product that is left after the harvest of two staple crops, IGStructures has the potential to be introduced into even more emerging markets.

IGS is not a large company, but we have been able to reach vastly new markets simply by relying on a strategic, environmentally conscious business model. The ability to use local labor while producing a much needed commodity, housing, also has a significant impact on food security and overall sustainability by giving farmers incentives to grow more.

The IGD Frontier 100 Forum — of which Devex was a proud media partner — brought together IGD Frontier Leaders — senior executives of leading U.S., African, European and South Asian companies who share a commitment to business-driven development in Africa — to share insights and advance initiatives in key sectors. Learn more here.

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About the author

  • Richard China

    Richard China is president and CEO of International Green Structures, a U.S. private sector firm that offers innovative structures and services that provide the solution to the global housing crisis. Prior to starting IGS, China spent most of his contracting career as president of Primo Electric, a family-owned electrical contracting firm serving the Mid-Atlantic region for over 40 years, then as COO of Integrated Electrical Services, a Houston based electrical contracting company. China is an IGD Frontier Leader.

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