Lesotho: Recycling Tin Cans into Houses

17 September 2002

Johannesburg — Pick up one bit of trash - in this case, an empty soda can - and ask yourself what it might be good for?

That's what Michael Hönes did one day in Lesotho and out of his meditations on the humble tin can have come an exciting new building form, a way to burn firewood more efficiently, novel furniture and a plan to give aids orphans a roof over their head - with electric light to boot.

Hönes, 38, moved to Lesotho from his native Germany for love. But once there, he found a new mission in life, to help make African development more sustainable. Akwe Amosu found him in Johannesburg at the 'Ubuntu village' of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, where he was running a popular restaurant boasting live South African jazz, a kitchen and dining area made of soda cans and a menu of food cooked entirely on solar cookers.

Tell me how you got into this?

I met a Mosotho lady in my village in Germany, fell in love and went with her to Lesotho, so I got settled there and I wanted to do something positive. In Europe you don't really know about the problems but once you live here and you see, you come up with simple solutions and think, yeah, actually, that's not such a big problem. So I started inventing some new products.

With the tin cans left over from fizzy drinks, or sodas?

Yes, I was wondering why people don't collect them. Of course, the reason was that people have to use their energy surviving, so looking after the environment was not a priority. So then I thought, why not give waste a value? Because then, people will act not because of the environmental issue but as a way of generating income. So this was the concept.

The most valuable waste materials are the cans because a can is a high-tech product, durable, lightweight and it has a lot of properties, not just as a valuable material for recycling but also as a form. It's a form - it's a hollow building block. So, I asked, what can I do with that?

Why is a hollow cylindrical building form useful?

First of all the industry designed it like that to have the most volume, it's very strong and very light for transportation and the empty can has the same qualities. You can stand on a can, putting all your weight on it. If you put cans on top of each other they fit nicely together, it's like a joint, and if you can keep them in position, they're very strong. So I thought, how can I join them together while keeping them vertical? I came up with wire because wire is a most common product here, strong, durable and a similar material.

So what did you decide you could make with these cans?

Well at first, I wanted to start something and there's a lot of sun so I wanted to test some solar cookers; but I could see the existing models were too expensive for the people and I had this knowledge and background in the firewood crisis, so I decided I could do something to save energy but without making any money input. So that was the inspiration - to make a more efficient wood-burning stove; the cans were lying around, so I said, OK, that's my subject. I want to do it.

And you designed a stove made out of cans?

Yes. I tried different models; I did efficiency testing and the final version was, on average, cooking with one third less than the normal amount of fuel.

So what was the next step?

I thought that people had to be trained to make the stoves so they can do it themselves. You have to decentralise, spread the skills, especially to the women, and then they start doing it. The idea was that once they knew how to build it they would know how to maintain it and at the same time as training them, you can send other messages as well - about cooking, about firewood, about sun-drying, and tree-planting, the benefits of trees etc. I wrote a book about it supported by our sponsor. And we have this book available and when we train people, they have it as a manual .

So what was the take-up like?

The people were sceptical, they thought it was a toy. We approached poor people and - this is a social problem I think - they always want to do what the richer ones are doing.

But the middle classes understand; when they see something, they don't become jealous, they say OK, I can use that. That's a very critical point. So we will focus, in the future, on those who have built up some wealth, who will agree to use the stove and then they will guide the others through.

The rich ones, they change onto completely different energy paths - to gas or microwaves or whatever; but for the majority we hope to persuade the 'middle class' in the rural areas.

Have you got any indication that this strategy will work?

Yes, we had a project and we found out that people are using the stove in that area - almost everybody's using it; but the people don't build new ones, they don't have the tools. Two years is the lifespan of that fireplace so they need to build new ones. They've forgotten quite a bit, and haven't had the practice, so we have to have a follow-up on training them.

It sounds as though it requires a lot of effort to get people to make the change.

Yes, people are used to tradition and the tradition was that you could always get everything free from nature!. But this is changing, the pressure on the land is higher, competition is higher, people have to pay for water. People would like to go back to tradition and have no changes - that's true all over the world - if you have something new, people are always critical.

Now you didn't stop at making the stove using the cans - you've also made a restaurant, stools, tables, all made of tin cans. How did that happen?

Well after you've made fireplaces, you want something to sit on around the fire! So you think, OK, I already know how to join the cans, so I made a chair; once you cook and you have a chair, you need a table. It was a nice set-up. People started saying, "Hey this looks nice and fancy and its very unique and a smart thing, we want to buy that!"

So I started a small business producing them; and then I faced a big problem - the overhead of renting a place. I think for every small business in Africa it's very difficult; you have to pay school fees, you have Christmas, for two months you have no turnover at all, but you still have to pay rent! You will never come to green pastures because you make money and you lose it the same year, just surviving.

So I said, no, I have to make money, I will make my own office and I thought, of course, of using cans. So now I just rent a flat area, and I've built my small office. Now when I make money I don't lose it when there's no business. That's how I started making buildings with the cans.

But didn't people laugh at you making your office out of tin cans and your chairs and your tables? Could this really catch on with anyone-else or is it just that you are eccentric enough to make it work?

This is a difficult question. People were laughing and they didn't take it seriously. But now, as you can see, the whole restaurant is made this way and people now realise that it's a completely new handicraft, new materials, new tools, new products and it has a use potential like any other handicraft.

If you look back 100 years there were no electricians; now we have thousands. So this is a new handicraft and people realise that you can make money - people believe what you say if you have money and buy a new Mercedes! Of course I'm not buying a new Mercedes. But this is how people think!

We have another big project with the cans. We have a big problem in Lesotho with HIV orphans. We started a new NGO there now where we are looking for sponsors of can house units for the orphans with a solar panel on the roof as we have on the restaurant roof here, and that house will be named after the sponsor, the money goes directly to that family so they are building their own houses, in a safe environment, and we get women between the ages of 40 and 75 years to help look after them and make them completely independent.

This is what we're trying to do, to look after orphans in numbers. We have thousands and thousands of orphans, it's the biggest problem and it's a good way of getting people linked up with the idea of orphans, of making them aware of the problem so they can contribute directly.

The German government, for example, is the official sponsor now, they are paying for the hidden costs, like transportation, HIV counsellors and so on, so that is all covered. Then if someone donates money it goes direct to the house and the progress can be viewed on the Internet, so a couple of months later, the house is there, the sponsor has a direct link to the way their money was spent and they know they have contributed something.

Have you started this project?

We are going to start after the summit. Part of this restaurant will be used, we're shipping everything back to Lesotho, we already have a site donated and we're getting more sites. We have about six donors from private sites already and the first village should start before the end of the year.

Now you aren't just working with tin cans - we're sitting in this tin can restaurant and the food people are eating here is being cooked not on the stoves you were just describing, but on solar cookers.

Yes, this is a sunshine restaurant and everything is cooked on solar cookers. The new stoves now are very efficient - you can cook five litres of water in one hour.

We want to show people that you can have sustainable development and you can touch it and you can feel it. If you just show this cooker in an exhibition, people won't believe it. If you use it here, they come and they taste solar-cooked food and they ask a lot of questions and people start thinking - hey it works, it's nice, how much does it cost? Where can I buy it?

Now we start to commercialise it and we need big orders to get something going; then we'll develop from there.

Who is making this parabola stove?

It's a German businessman who put his money on the table and started producing them and he's the only one who could do mass production of solar cookers right now.

He doesn't want to be identified - or his phone just rings all the time with people asking him for information about solar cooking - he would rather work through agents or dealers that he can supply.

He's started to produce at no profit to get things going and the more he produces, the cheaper they get, until, eventually, we reach those people who couldn't afford solar cooking before; this is the concept behind it.

I think we have the biggest collection of solar cookers in the southern hemisphere here! We have 20 cooking for our kitchen - its very impressive.

So if people want to take you up on any of these projects, what do they do?

For the solar cooking they can go to http://www.solarcookers.co.za.

If they want more information about the cans, it's http://www.tincan-villages.org or http://www.can-products.de.

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