Roads, railways, wind farms – Africa's economy is growing strongly, as is the construction sector. However, the availability and quality of concrete are variable, because there are only a few cement factories and the concrete construction culture is still relatively new. BAM, under the leadership of Dr. Wolfram Schmidt, is supporting African scientists in their research into concrete and binding agents, and in the organisation of workshops about sustainable cement. The European concrete experts are also benefiting from their joint conclusions.
Why is BAM involved in Africa?
It began with the EU-funded SPIN programme, which BAM coordinated between 2009 and 2013. The initial question of that project was: what could innovative concrete and new construction methods look like in Africa? To explore this, we visited Africa's concrete experts and got an idea on the ground. Together we arranged conferences there and in Berlin, where we discussed our research work and formed networks. The KEYS project eventually grew out of this, in which we specifically engage in dialogue with African junior researchers. They are very competent, motivated and creative. We encourage them to build networks amongst themselves and also with German junior researchers and top international researchers. I find this exchange hugely inspiring.
Does BAM have any other joint projects in Africa?
To further support our African partners, we have initiated the PACE PTS project jointly with the Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB), Germany's national meteorology institute. We want to use this to improve the quality infrastructure of African laboratories. The demand for better products, construction technology and regulations is very high. 36 African laboratories took part in the last ring trial, and a third is starting now. Colleagues test cement samples sent by BAM for various parameters and send us their analysis, which we assess. They can check their methods and know how they compare to other laboratories on the continent. In addition, we have also organised two ACCTA Conferences in South Africa in 2013 and in Tanzania in early 2016. African and international scientists were able to exchange ideas and present their research. We want to continue to encourage this network building.
What are you personally learning from working with African partners?
I have learnt more than I have been able to give. At the beginning I thought that infrastructure and the procurement of materials in Africa are not ideal, but that whatever we do in Europe can be easily modified for use there. But that is not true. There are other raw materials, types of cement, supply chains and prices, plus differences in architecture and construction technology. Our colleagues had to develop their own new ways of building with concrete – for every country, every climate zone and the existing production conditions. That can only work through communication, knowledge transfer and personal interaction between experts.
What is your vision for European-African cooperation?
In Europe, there are numerous standards and regulations. These have many advantages, but also prevent innovations coming quickly to the market. Things are different in Africa, as the concrete industry is still relatively young. There I can sense a great enthusiasm for innovation: businesses try to bring new insights straight to construction areas. Their creativity is unbelievable. The range of construction technologies is also bewildering. With increasing knowledge and technical know-how, our colleagues in Africa could in future be using better and longer-lasting concretes than we are in Europe. We can also learn from that, and that is the mark of a true partnership.
What sort of potential is there for research into sustainable cement in Africa?
Classic cement is often mixed with waste products like blast furnace slag or fly ash. This improves the CO2 balance and allows the flow properties and durability of the concrete to be manipulated in a targeted way. These raw materials are often not available in Africa, as they originate from industrial processes that do not exist everywhere. It would be expensive and unsustainable to import them, given there are alternatives in Africa from agriculture, namely cassava starch or rice husk ash. At BAM we have already developed a self-compacting concrete using these substances and lignosulphonate, a waste product from the manufacture of cellulose. In terms of its properties, it is barely distinguishable from expensive specialist products, which contain additives based on natural oil, which we will need to replace at some point in any case. We will not manage this alone. Africa is therefore particularly interesting from a scientific perspective, because we can discover new things together with our colleagues.