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Seed houses in Nicaragua: Small beginnings yield big results

May 15, 2010




Facing the camera, Santiago talks about his former house collapsing because of deteriorated wood. He paints a vivid picture of the family shifting from spot to spot in a vain effort to keep themselves and their belongings dry when rain pours in through the ceiling. He points to the safe, sturdy roof of his new concrete home, and describes his joy. He can now protect his family from the elements, and save toward expanding the “seed” house that he has already painted a bright turquoise.

Rosa Emilia comes next. Her old house, she says, was made of a wood table and plastic sheeting. The 360-square-foot concrete home she now shares with her husband and children is “linda,” pretty, with a beautiful garden. The other house had one bed and a dirt floor that the children didn’t like. Now, she says, her son stretches out on the new cement floor and “feels happy.” Rosa Emilia feels safer, too, when her husband travels. She can lock the door and raise the windows for a breeze. She has plans to add-on to the core house when she saves enough money from her small shop.

Each family plants their own seed
Habitat for Humanity Nicaragua works with multiple families in each community, so that changes in people’s circumstances are easy to see. In a country where 75 percent lives on less than US$2 a day, several families resolving their housing issues at once inspires neighbors serve as an inspiration to one another. The average income for Habitat families in Nicaragua is about US$190 a month, meaning that after the family purchases basic necessities they have roughly US$20 left to pay for home improvements. Habitat for Humanity Nicaragua’s model adapts to this context, allowing loan repayments of US$15-$20 over the course of four years.

These “seed” houses, as they are called, do not come with latrines. However, Habitat Nicaragua is working with other organizations to address sanitation issues. In some communities, these networks are working to build a septic tank, which a number of families will share. This type of septic tank costs a mere US$275.

Women-headed households are priority for Habitat Nicaragua. As are families with more than five living in one small room, families with economic activity in the home and families with a disabled relative. The program offers technical support to small businesses and financial education for families. People who make less than US$150 a month are granted a full subsidy, those with incomes up to US$250 are eligible for a combination of credit and subsidy, and those with incomes from US$250-$400 are able to fully afford Habitat’s no-profit credit.

The materials for a seed house cost a total of US$4,500. The solid, anti-seismic structure is built to withstand the frequent natural disasters that plague Nicaragua.

Habitat Nicaragua also helps homeowners resolve land use issues, allowing them to fold the cost of purchasing titles into their loans.

“Reducing overcrowding, and helping families to access adequate shelter takes on a particular urgency because statistics show that girls get pregnant at very young ages when they live in cramped houses with so many male relatives,” says Habitat for Humanity Nicaragua Director, Vittoria Peñalba. “Additionally, children face serious health challenges from overcrowded, structurally deficient houses,” she adds.

…and each seed is unique
Zayda Martinez is a woman of 50 who resides in Barrio Grenada, an isolated neighborhood in Managua, Nicaragua. She lives with her husband Emilio who, due to severe diabetes, had to have his foot amputated last year. In mid-2009, Zayda heard of Habitat for Humanity through a promoter of a local organization called HABITAR. The promoter, Ms. Cony, told Zyra about a “seed house” project that was being launched by Habitat. However, her application was unable to be approved because her daughter had built a small concrete fence to support her wooden home.

Zayda prayed fervently. Two months later, her son was diagnosed with schizophrenia and she felt the world was crumbling. Her tiny house had been severely damaged by the previous winter, and her son was spending the days at home by himself. A few weeks later, Habitat representatives came by again, and reconsidered her application. Among, sobbing and tears Zayda told us that her life was changed completely. “We hope that you keep helping families like us… Thank you so much for helping me in this way, all my family hopes to meet you some day.”

She has now what she never had before; an adequate living space. She knows her son is safe, and when she leaves for work her husband can move around in his wheelchair with greater ease. Zayda feared the winter more than anything; every year her dirt floor flooded and the rain filtered through the gaps on her roof. “The cold and the wind were unbearable, we barely slept every winter trying to keep our stuff from getting wet,” said Zayda.

Habitat for Humanity has reduced Zayda’s monthly payments to US$15, thanks to subsidies from other organizations and gracious donors. Zayda can afford her payments, but her household income is meager, consisting of the money her husband begs for in the streets, and what she earns washing and ironing clothes. Zayda says that she prays the lord will provide her with the strength to save up enough to build the second half of her house, so her son can have more space and she will feel less claustrophobic and anxious each day. Mental health in Nicaragua is highly unattended; there’s only one Psychosocial Hospital, which receives very little help from the government, and additional resources are very limited. Zayda tells us hopes that a miracle will cure her son.

In the mean time, Zayda works hard to complete her payments. Not only the monetary ones, but also those she feels she owes to the Lord for answering her prayer. In the barrios of Managua, there are many families just like Zyra’s. Water is scarce in her area and her property doesn’t have access to a potable water service and sanitation system. She still cooks outdoors and has a latrine in that is in process of construction. Habitat for Humanity is working quickly however, so that when the winter comes many of these families will have an adequate house to shelter them from the rain.

Barrio Grenada is crossed by a dirt canal where human waste is often deposited, spreading illness among children during the rainy season. Habitat is exploring solutions, community problem must be resolved together with the families who live there, educating them about health and sanitation, and supporting them through simple steps that can be taken to make their life better.


To learn more about Habitat for Humanity Nicaragua please visit