Canico reed houses on Inhaca Island -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

Canico reed houses on Inhaca Island

By Andrew Lind

Teresa Timba and her three children live on Inhaca Island, Mozambique. In my role as a Peace Corps volunteer I had asked her neighbor, Agnes, to identify poor families with orphans and vulnerable children so I could help them plant nutritional gardens. One day, at the end of June 2005, Agnes introduced me to Teresa. I was shocked at her “house”—a shack that bent at a 45-degree angle into the trunk of a fallen tree. I assigned Agnes the task of teaching Teresa how to dig four nutritional garden plots and fill them with organic waste, readying them for planting.

Two weeks later, I returned with the newly arrived Peace Corps volunteer, Daniel Lyons. To my surprise, I noticed that the house that lay against the tree was no longer there; now the family was living in what had been a makeshift kitchen. Both Daniel and I were disturbed that the children were covered in bites and scabs. Sleeping on sand, the children had infestations including mange, scabies and mataquenhas.[1] Teresa had no income, and the children had all been abandoned by their fathers. Planting a garden seemed like a joke in light of the family’s situation. The family needed a house with a cement floor, a latrine and some income to survive, but we had no means by which to provide them with this. In the conventional Habitat system, single bedroom cement-brick houses cost around US$2,000 that needs to be repaid. Teresa could not possibly afford to enter into a housing mortgage.

The reality

During 2005, project officer Aida Tembe, Daniel and I had been discussing the possibility of creating a US$1,000 house. Through a grant from the Allen and Nesta Ferguson Foundation, the Inhaca affiliate was building houses for single mothers and widows. But recently, the numbers of women interested in receiving homes had been decreasing. Only three who would finish houses by the end of August with the help of two Global Village teams had a steady income (close to US$40 a month, the minimum wage in Mozambique). The remaining single mothers and widows—the majority of the population on Inhaca according to the local administrator—earned incomes through cutting firewood, selling shrimp and crab, and doing odd jobs. With sporadic incomes averaging less than US$20 a month, these women could not afford to buy into US$1,800 mortgages. After building six houses for women-headed families, the affiliate would not be able to finish its 10-house goal simply because there were no more eligible beneficiaries. (Eligibility was defined by the ability to pay although, in reality, plenty of single and widowed mothers needed homes.)


In order to create a US$1,000 house, the amount of cement used on a house—the most expensive material Habitat uses—had to be decreased. Local housing on Inhaca is made of caniço, a type of reed that grows locally and in the mainland fields of Machangulo (a 10-minute boat ride away). The houses are constructed with vertical wood pillars and horizontal sticks that hold the reeds together. Roofs are usually made with a grass thatching. These houses only last about three years before they must be rebuilt, but they only cost a couple hundred dollars.

Habitat wanted to build a low-cost house with caniço walls, but not reduce durability. Aida, the Peace Corps volunteers and HFH Mozambique architects began designs on a caniço house that would last longer. The first step involved the need for a full foundation and floor; this would allow the caniço to rest on cement and keep it from rotting from the bottom up, the primary problem with caniço houses. This would also provide a base for any further building in the future should the family decide, or be able, to build with cement blocks. Further, if the houses had quality tin roofs, the caniço would also be protected from leaks when it rained, reducing rot and wear. (It is hard to get good quality thatch for roofing in southern Mozambique.) The final designs that came out involved a foundation and cement bricks that came up about 2 ft from the ground, caniço walls, and a tin roof.

Unfortunately, part of the original HFH Mozambique plan on Inhaca had been the introduction of cement brick homes and latrines. Aida, once the president of the affiliate, noted that caniço homes were not necessarily going to be viewed as a positive strategic change, especially by members of the local government. Many people associated HFH Mozambique with “high quality cement houses.” Caniço houses were viewed as temporary and of poor quality. Still, Aida herself had recently helped a widow, Anasse, who had no place to sleep. Anasse had been living in conditions similar to Teresa when Aida met her. With help from the local community, Aida had gathered enough donations to supply Anasse with a caniço hut. A year later, a Global Village team paid for and built a cement floor for Anasse’s house. Aida had already set the precedent for community acceptance of intervention actions for the poorest of the poor.

Plans were set in motion to offer the caniço houses to widows and single women-headed households. Ten women who worked occasionally as community cleaners for the Ministry of Social Action were brought into the project. They were informed of the estimated house cost and asked if they would be interested. All responded positively to the possibility of receiving a caniço house but, within weeks, all backed out because of fears over repayment problems. Not understanding the difference in the cost of their proposed house and the conventional cement-block homes, they took the Inhaca affiliate’s problems with some of the cement house owner repayments to mean similar problems for themselves. The women realized the gravity of a commitment to repay but did not yet understand the cost difference between cement and caniço houses.

At the same time, Peace Corps volunteer Daniel Lyons had been visiting Teresa. Realizing that she had rebuilt her makeshift home three times during the past six months, he wrote a letter to the August Global Village team asking for donations to help fund a house for Teresa. HFH Mozambique took a risk in planning an “Intervention Home” for Teresa. Since she could not possibly pay a full mortgage, the affiliate would build a single room caniço house and latrine for her family. The result was small in comparison to other HFH Mozambique homes—even the standard reed models—but much better and more durable than her current home. The Global Village team gave generously towards the estimated US$1,000 house cost. In the end, though, the single room house, including a latrine, ended up costing just US$600. Aida worked with Teresa to create a repayment plan. Teresa’s obligation is to repay 30 percent of the house cost paid through working directly for Habitat. Teresa would work for Habitat on Inhaca and be paid 50 percent of her wages, the other 50 percent going towards repayment. Teresa now has a small income and is paying off her debt. Teresa’s life is visibly changed by the new home. Her old home was nothing more than caniço and sticks with see-through walls. Now she can sleep in her house without getting wet when it rains and her children no longer sleep in the sand and get bitten by bugs or other infestations. The new house is roughly twice the size of her old house.

The affiliate has recently finished four more caniço houses. The new owners are the same women who backed out on the first caniço project idea. After seeing Teresa’s house and the cost, they came back one at a time to ask the affiliate for another chance at building their own homes. The new approach has given them far more options and a better ability to gauge their mortgages and pay off the houses. Maria, whose old caniço house burned down just after the father of her child died, asked the affiliate for a similar house to Teresa’s: a one-room home for her and her only child. Lidia wanted a two-room house and took it upon herself to gather some of the necessary local materials which drastically reduced the cost of her home.

Caniço houses on Inhaca have allowed the affiliate to choose beneficiaries based on desire and need rather than ability to pay off homes. Intervention homes, such as Teresa’s, are chosen by the community and the Ministry of Social Action for those who cannot pay. HFHM then commits to giving these families the means to repay 30 percent of the mortgage—linking the affiliate’s repayment success to finding work for and paying a family that has no income. Revolving fund caniço houses go toward families with incomes around US$16 a month. In both cases, the new house type allows the families to participate more fully in the process—gathering materials, understanding the actual cost of their homes, and knowing that they can afford to have a better place for their children.

Andrew Lind is a former Peace Corps volunteer. He now serves as Orphans and Vulnerable Children’s program manager with HFH Mozambique.


[1] Mataquenhas are fleas that burrow into the skin and lay an egg sack and must be dug out with needles.