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close this bookBASIN - News No. 03 - January 1992 - Building Advisory Service (BASIN-GTZ-SKAT, 1992, 34 p.)
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View the document(introduction...)
View the documentFCR/MCR Tile production as a business
View the documentLetters to the editor
View the documentEarth as section
View the documentWhy it is essential to establish norms for compressed earth blocks
View the documentExamples of technical specifications for performance classes


RAS -Roofing Advisory Services at SKAT -Swiss Center for Appropriate Technology, Tigerbergstr.2, CH-9000 St.Gallen, Switzerland

Dear Reader

Maybe you remember the case reports on FCR/MCR in Nicaragua, Malawi and Nepal. Two new case reports, one about flat tiles in Kiribati the other one about MCR tiles in India are available in English from SKAT (see also book review).

The following main article examines some business and marketing aspects of the Fibre Concrete Tiles' technology. Jill Wells evaluated the collected field data from Nepal, Kenya, Peru, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Ghana and comes to conclusions which also might be interesting for other products in the buiIding material sector because of similar or opposite effects observed.

FCR/MCR Tile production as a business

By Jill Wells

(FCR = Fibre Concrete Roofing, MCR = Micro Concrete Roofing, GCI= Galvanized Corrugated Iron)


As readers from Basin News are aware, significant progress has been made in recent years in transferring FCR/MCR tile making technology to developing countries. Good quality tiles are now being made in countries as far apart as Nepal, Kenya and Peru. But making the tiles is only part of the problem. If tile-making is to succeed as a business, the tiles have also to be sold. During the fourth FAS seminar in December 1988 it became apparent that a number of small businesses set up to produce FCR tiles, in various parts of the world, being forced out of business because of difficulty in selling the product. Yet in some other countries there wasn't a problem -the tiles seemed to be 'selling themselves'. Clearly it was important to know why ? In order to find out more about the factors furthering or hampering the sale of FCR tiles on the commercial market, SKAT initiated a 'questionnaire survey' in the spring of 1989. Some conclusions from this survey were published in the February 1990 edition of FCR News. But in view of the limited coverage (responses were received from only five tile producers selling tiles on the open market) these conclusions could only be tentative. A further survey was clearly needed Hence, in the summer of 1990, questionnaires were sent to a further 20 small businesses, producing FCR tiles for the commercial market in seven different countries (Nepal, Kenya, Peru, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Ghana). The experiences of these 20 producers in selling and marketing their tiles, and the lessons that emerge, are summarised below.

Customers buy FCR tiles because they are cheaper:

Despite their many other advantages, there is little doubt that the majority of customers buy FCR tiles because a FCR tile roof is cheeper then the alternatives they are considering. In most cases, this means cheaper than GCI (Galvanized Corrugated Iron) sheets. The survey revealed that the largest number of producers selling tiles on the open market are currently in Nepal, where the selling price of 8 mm tiles is slightly more than half that of GCI sheets. Although there are some cheaper alternative roofing materials available in some parts of the country, such as thatch, timber shingles and clay tiles, these are generally of poor quality and frequently have other disadvantages, so that they themselves are replaced by GCI sheets.

In Honduras, FCR tiles are around one half, and in Peru they are one third of the price of GCI, and much cheaper than all other quality alternatives. In both countries producers, at the moment, seem to have no difficulty selling tiles.

In Kenya, on the other hand, roofing with FCR tiles is more expensive than with GCI sheets and FCR tile producers have had great difficulty in breaking into the market for GCI sheets. The vast bulk of sales of FCR tiles to date in Kenya have been to customers who would have used other kinds of tile (or asbestos cement sheets), to whom FCR offers a cheaper alternative. The fact that this 'middle-income' market is strictly limited in size outside of Nairobi could account for the severe marketing problems experienced by some small tile producers in Kenya. Of the seven who were trained by ITDG in the 1980s, only three are still in business. It should be noted that Kenya is not alone in facing a situation where FCR tiles are more expensive than GCI sheets.

This was also found to be the case in Zimbabwe; as well as in Haiti, where some FCR tile producers were forced out of business because they could not break into the market. Also when making cost comparisons allowance must be made for the fact that GCI sheets will tolerate a substandard roof structure, whereas FCR tiles will not. Where timber is scarce or expensive, it may be common practice to place GCI sheets on a bamboo structure. In this situation FCR tiles, although appearing to be cheaper, may in reality be more expensive to the customer than GCI sheets.

Even if cheaper, FCR tiles still have to be SOLD:

A low price may be regarded as a minimum requirement for selling tiles. Where there are no alternative roofing materials available, it may be all that is needed. Such was the situation in Uganda in 1989 and in Nicaragua in 1985. But this situation rarely prevails for long. We know that the market suddenly declined in Nicaragua. (We do not yet know how many tile producers are still in business in Uganda). In more normal circumstances, it would seem that FCR tiles do not 'sell themselves'. Potential customers have to be informed and persuaded that the tiles are not only cheaper, but also better than the alternatives. A certain amount of effort is required on the part of producers in order to do this.

Producers respond differently to this challenge. It is interesting that even in Nepal, where the market situation is extremely favourable, some producers were still unable to sell their tiles. According to Tom Moncrieff (see the BASIN News No. 1), "those that found difficulty continue to do so, suggesting that they have poor marketing skills -lack of ability to sell, lack of commitment, lack of motivation etc.". In other countries also, varying degrees of success among producers are apparent, and could be accounted for by differing degrees of commitment and 'entrepreneurial skills'. In most countries, the usual means of launching FCR tiles onto the market is by persuading friends, relatives and neighbours to buy. Hence personal contacts are vital. This is clearly demonstrated by the success of the product in Nepal, where there is a close network of family ties. Also by the case of a producer in Honduras who is also a restaurant and bar owner; he attributes the rapid take-off of his business to the fact that he is in the 'privileged position of knowing many people'.

One important consequence of this strategy of selling through 'informal' marketing channels is that the location of the FCR workshop is vital factor in the success of the business. Ideally the workshop should tee situated in a prominent position and be located in an area with sufficient purchasing power to support the plant. Many producers also offer inducements to initial customers, such as a favourable price and/or free tile-laying service. This is especially valuable if the customer is the owner of a prestigious building (e.g. a bank, church or government office). In all countries, the construction of such 'demonstration' roofs is the single most important marketing strategy employed.

Other more formal methods of marketing, (such as advertising on bill-boards, radio and TV; demonstrating at national shows etc.) are of course feasible and may be appropriate in some situations. In Peru, for example, Mateco prepared a pamphlet advertising the tiles and then made direct contact with materials merchants, architects and builders who now display and sell the tiles on his behalf. However, the launch of any kind of large-scale advertising campaign (or other attempt to win large orders) needs very careful timing; it is important to ensure that an adequate supply of tiles will be available to meet any expansion in demand, otherwise potential customers may be frustrated.

Consumer Resistance to FCR Tiles:

Even the most determined marketing efforts will not succeed if there are fundamental reasons why customers are reluctant to buy FCR tiles. Hence, knowing why people do NOT buy FCR tiles is even more important than knowing why they do. One of the most common objections to the tiles is that they are too thin. They are certainly much thinner than conventional concrete tiles, and probably thinner than any other kind of roofing material except GCI sheets. To most people thickness equal strength. In Kenya, potential customers have been known to jump on the tiles to demonstrate their fragility. To try to overcome this problem producers in most countries now only make 8 mm tiles; although still thin, they are recognisably thicker than the 6 mm tile. Underlying this specific reservation on the part of potential customers is a very real fear as to how the product will perform -particularly its durability. This is an entirely reasonable reaction. The purchase of a roof represents a very substantial capital outlay. No rational person will buy any kind of roofing material unless he/ she is reasonably sure that it will provide a roof that doesn't leak and will last for a minimum number of years. GCI sheets have been around long enough to offer that assurance; but FCR tiles are a relatively new product. While demonstration roofs may help to show that the tiles will keep out the rain, durability will take many years to demonstrate. This is a very difficult hurdle to overcome. We of course know that FCR tile roofs will NOT be durable (indeed may not even keep out the rain) unless they are carefully made and well laid on a properly constructed roof. Serious producers will have confidence in their products and should therefore be willing to offer their customers some kind of guarantee. But as the construction of the roof is at least as important as the quality of the tiles, this is only really meaningful if producers offered a 'supply and fix' service. There is evidence that some producers in Ghana and Nepal are now beginning to do this. The provision of a complete roofing service (i.e. selling roofs instead of tiles) accompanied by a performance guarantee, is perhaps the best way of providing the customer with the assurance that he/she requires and deserves. (It is also an excellent way of diminishing the ever-present threat of low-quality producers spoiling the market).

A further criticism of FCR tiles is that they require sawn timber in the roof structure. In some parts of the world, this may simply not be available; or it may be available but extremely expensive. This seems to be the case in parts of Nepal, where some entrepreneurs cite the high cost of timber in the market place as a reason why people in their neighbourhood will not buy FCR tiles. It is also the situation in Bangladesh, where attempts are now being made to construct roof trusses out of bamboo. (The success of these experiments is as yet unclear).

Another problem that potential customers see in purchasing FCR tiles is the difficulty in transporting them. In many cases, this means an additional cost; in other cases maybe just an added inconvenience. Either way, the customer will make the comparison with GCI sheets which are so very easy to transport. Producers in Nepal have learned to help people with transportation by rickshaw. In African countries, where these don't exist, the problem may not be so easy to solve. It may well serve to restrict the growth of the market, both geographically and to the lower income groups.

A final constraint to the development of the market for FCR tiles seems, paradoxically, to be the absence of a guaranteed supply. Very few producers can afford to keep a stock of tiles, so customers can not buy them 'off the shelf'. Even when an order is placed, the limited capacity of individual producers may mean that it is many months before it can be filled. Direct evidence that this is a serious deterrent to potential customers comes from Ghana and Peru; in Kenya it seems to be a factor hindering the sale of tiles to small estate developers.

Some Implications for FCR tile production as a business:

The entrepreneurs in Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, Peru, Nicaragua, Honduras etc. who responded so willingly to the SKAT questionnaire are in a very real sense 'pioneers'. They are the first in what will, hopefully, one day be a long line of FCR tile producers throughout the world. But being first is never easy. They have the difficult job of introducing a completely new roofing material into what is traditionally a very conservative market. To build up customer confidence in FCR tiles can take a long time. Even when a market has been developed, demand may be expected to be inherently unstable, due to seasonal, economic or other factors. Small entrepreneurs with limited capital are more likely to be able to survive periods of low demand if they have another source of income. Nearly all of the producers surveyed do in fact have some such source -whether it be full-time employment, temporary employment in the off-season, or other lines of business (such as building contracting, gin brewing or hotel ownership). For these entrepreneurs, FCR tile production is essentially a part time occupation; because they have perceived it in this light, they have managed to survive. Although the producers themselves may survive by doing other work, fluctuations in demand also create cash-flow problems for the business. Consistent operation at less than full capacity (e.g. when the market is seasonal) will also seriously affect profitability, and hence the viability of FCR tiles production in the longer term. Evidence from some producers suggests that profits are currently negligible and lack of capital is hampering expansion. If this is so, then prices probably should be raised. But in practice producers may have little room to manoeuvre if they are not to price themselves out of the market. In this context, the availability of a supply of cheap but reliable equipment becomes critical. As does a source of low-interest finance.


Attempts to disseminate FCR tile technology on a commercial basis are relatively recent. Nevertheless, it is important that we try to draw some lessons from the experience of the few 'pioneers' in this field. The following 'guidelines' are put forward for consideration:

1) The price of FCR tiles, vis-a-vis other roofing materials, is a crucial factor affecting sales

2) Allowance should be made in cost comparisons for the fact that GCI sheets are frequently placed on inferior roof structures

3) feasibility studies should also carefully consider the effect of less than full capacity operation on profitability and costs

4) Even if the price of an FCR tile roof is competitive, people will not buy FCR tiles unless they are reasonably sure they will perform as well as GCI sheets

5) The offer of a supply and fix service accompanied by a guarantee may prove to be the best way of ensuring the widescame acceptance of FCR tile roofing

6) It may take many years for a market for FCR tiles to develop even then, the demand for building materials is inherently unstable. Entrepreneurs should not therefore be encouraged to enter the FCR business on a full-time basis

Letters to the editor

About "Cultural Differences and Problems in Curing and Production" published in BASlN-News No 2

The production plant for tiles in Masaya is a quite artificial business and, therefore, hardly suitable to make any comparisons between the behaviour of the workers there and any other workers.

Just imagine, a business man sets up a business, takes care of the financing, buys the machinery, builds the plant, and finally lets others to do the rest.

Just imagine, he has not made any plan for the production plant site, has not employed any qualified workers, has not negotiated any working conditions, has not fixed the prices for the products ...

This is roughly how the production plant in Masaya was running. Now, it might be clear what I mean by saying "an artificial business". Luzius Harder hardly is to be blamed on the aboritive development, but he should supply us with the basic information. The reader must know where the information come from.

In Masaya, every worker had a certain job to do, operating the machine day after day or preparing mortar. Sometimes, more money was needed for the administration than for the production of tiles; this surely is not very motivating for the workers! Often, the production was stopped, and the workerhad to go for "holiday" without being paid, of course. It is obvious that the frequent changes of staff must have something to do with the bad conditions. A real team could never develop.

We should not compare chickens to telephones. If cultural differences were at stake here at all, we should rather discuss the culture how to run a business.

Earth as section

EAS -Earth Building Advisory Service at CRATerre -International Centre for Earth Construction, Centre Simone Signoret / BP 53, F -38090 Villefontaine, France

Dear Reader

In the local materials building sector, the question of norms is being raised more and more. Producers are often alarmed at the idea of norms. Norms are indeed often used as a basis for building regulations. Unfortunately, it is a fact that a certain number of basic principles are not followed in preparing such norms and this makes them additional obstacles for producers.

And yet initially the idea of establishing norms came not from the State, but from producers themselves. It is interesting to go back into the past a little to understand the need which is met by preparing a norm and the principles which must be respected to make it a promotional tool for producers rather than an obstacle.

Why it is essential to establish norms for compressed earth blocks

In the past, before urbanization and the development of industrial materials, the organization of the building industry was simple: on one side were craftsmen producing and using materials and on the other were clients commissioning work. Building materials were all collected or produced where they were to be used, building techniques stayed the same, as did building styles. Producers and clients lived in the same area and had therefore the same technical experience of the best materials and the best ways of working. They shared a common technical culture. Drawing up a contract was merely a question of agreeing on prices, volumes and deadlines.

With urbanization and the appearance of industrial materials and new building techniques, the organization of the building sector became more complex. Operators became specialized. Builders are no longer involved in producing materials. New figures have emerged, slipping in between those producing materials and the end-users of the building builders' merchants, selling materials retail or wholesale, building firms and sub-contractors, housing promotion companies, credit and finance organizations, and so on. The technical know-how of all these operators is also highly specialized business negotiators know the way business operates and financial experts know how finance operates, but they have only a very limited understanding of the way materials are produced. When contracts are drawn up for the purchase of materials or for buildings, in order to avoid any later misunderstanding or disagreement, a technical description of the materials and techniques has to be prepared in writing and in precise detail. Contracts therefore nowadays contain an element of technical specification which was not necessary in traditional building practice. It is obviously very time-consuming to prepare complete descriptions for each and every contract. For materials and techniques which were in more and more common use, it seemed sensible to prepare standard documents which could be used as technical reference documents. The basic idea of establishing norms was born to create technical reference documents to facilitate exchanges between all the parties involved in the building sector. The more complex the building sector becomes, the more necessary it is to prepare normative documents and often producers themselves have taken the initiative in doing so.

Local materials have long been associated with building in rural areas where direct contact between producers and users still prevails. The elaboration of norms in this context therefore seems superfluous. But for some years, for economic reasons, materials such as the compressed Barth block have emerged as an alternative which is of interest even in the organized building sector in urban or pert-urban areas. As with industrial materials, technical reference documents, or norms, have now become necessary. A number of recent experiences enable us to highlight the basic principles which must be respected and the traps which must be avoided.

1. The principle of precision

The very objective of a normative document is to describe a given material or technique. But the very recent appearance on the market of compressed earth blocks has been accompanied by recourse, in the absence of specific documents relating to , to norms intended for other materials or to general norms which do not take account of the specific characteristics of earth blocks. This approach, which is directly opposed to the spirit of establishing norms, is a serious mistake and often helps to obstruct the development of the use of CEBs. This is because in this event CEBs are expected to match performances which they cannot achieve whilst the qualities which they do have are ignored. A norm has a ½object+ and should be applied only to that object.

2. The principle of consensus

It is all too often assumed that a norm is a purely technical document and that it is normal that technicians should be responsible for drawing it up. One should not lose sight of the fact that a normative document is above all a contractual document existing alongside discussions and agreements between various parties in the building sector. All of these must therefore be in agreement on the content of these reference documents. If one or more parties disagree with the content of a norm, it can no longer serve as a reference and loses all relevance. Technicians may therefore draft a norm but for it to become an actual norm, they must obtain the consent of all parties involved. The notion of consensus is fundamental to the elaboration of a norm. It often proves extremely useful to hold a discussion meeting between all the parties in order to define norms which really prove to be useful promotional tools for producers of blocks. Lack of consultation at the definition stage on the other hand inevitably leads to failure.

3. The principle of realism

Building producers and entrepreneurs are pragmatists confronted by precise technical problems and with limited means at their disposal. The technical documents which they need for their work should therefore resemble them, i.e. they should be precise, direct, and realistic. What use is a document which suggests ways of measuring or testing materials which are materially or financially impractical in a local context? For example, recommending the use of a laboratory compressive strength test for small production units is a typical lack of realism, given that the cost of this type of test is equivalent to the value of several hundred blocks. In this context, it would be preferable to recommend a bending strength test using normal cheap site equipment. There is often a link between lack of realism and an lack of consultation. If producers are involved in the preparation of norms, they can immediately draw attention to the unrealistic elements which might be contained in a draft norm.

4. The principle of coherence

A norm should be a document which is easy to read and to use and which should not give rise to any confusion. Attempts to produce a single, all-embracing document which describes every aspect of the production, use, and testing of compressed earth blocks, often achieve the very opposite result with a document which is comprehensible only to specialized technicians. In addition a norm is a contractual document. If the contract relates, for example, to CEBs to be used in masonry, it is important to describe the performances and characteristics of the blocks. How they were manufactured, on the other hand, is not useful to know. If an all-embracing document is used, much of it will not be relevant to each specific contract. It would therefore seem preferable to prepare several complementary documents:

-a terminology norm, containing a description of all the terms applicable to the production, use and identification of CBs;

-a product norm, describing the appearance, characteristics and performances of blocks. This norm is therefore very widely used in negotiations relating to the purchase of blocks or to building works;

-a production norm, describing optimum production methods for CEBs. This enables one to assess the technical skills of a producer;

-a utilization norm, describing the main principles for the application of CEBs;

-a testing norm, describing all the site or laboratory testing methods which might be used for measuring the characteristics of the block or evaluating its performances.

5. The principle of target-groups

This notion is essential where local materials are concerned. Their manufacture and application are linked to local parameters which must be taken into account to obtain high quality products. For example, for compressed earth blocks, the soil type is very important but block production methods will have to be adapted to the local soil. For example, a sandy soil does not use the same water content as a clayey soil. To set a single value for the water content of a soil would be counterproductive. To take another example, a certain level of mechanical strength can seem quite adequate in a temperate climate but inadequate in an area subject to very high winds. A normative document must suit local conditions. With industrial materials, norms are habitually applied without reference to the context in which they are produced and applied. A normative document has a precise target group a given market in a particular context. This target group is its ½ area of application + and it has limits outside which the norm no longer makes sense. An area of application might be geographic or climatic, but it could also be economic. For example, within the same region, one might very well prepare one document for workshop production units and another for semi-industrial units. Poor definition of the area of application often results in lack of realism in the content of certain parameters which might be applicable in some circumstances and impossible to achieve in others. For example, laboratory testing of blocks is not unrealistic in the context of a large business, but will be difficult for the small craft producer. As an alternative to drawing up several documents, realistic alternatives for the parameters which are likely to pose problems can be recommended. What is important is for the document to reach its target group. Here again, deliberately seeking a consensus at the preparation stage of norms guarantees a good match between the norm and the local situation.

6. Normative documents and the search for quality

Normative documents are technical reference documents. They enable one to judge the quality of applied products but it is not the documents themselves which dictate the quality of the products. They provide a guarantee of quality during market negotiations and oblige producers to supply products of a given level. But if the producer is not given the means to improve his production methods, the norm will then seem to be no more than a barrier. The dissemination of norms only contributes to improvements in the general quality of blocks and buildings if it forms part of an overall approach to the promotion of quality.

a simple method for measuring binding strength

Laboratory equipment for measuring binding strength

This search for quality embraces aspects of training, technical support, and organizational and management support.

simple quality tests of CEB

7. The establishment of norms and international cooperation

In developing countries, normative documents were often drawn up using documents prepared for developed countries as blueprints. This approach is contrary to the very essence of establishing norms for a number of reasons confusion regarding the object of the document, failure to achieve a consensus during its elaboration, lack of realism, failure to identify a clear target group. Fortunately, over the past few years this situation has been changing. The need to create genuinely relevant documents implies the need for deliberation and exchange beforehand between local materials professionals. international cooperation, and more specifically cooperation between developing countries facing the same problems, would seem to be very useful. It is therefore worth noting the value of working sessions such as the <<workshop on standards and specifications for local building materials+ organized by UNCHS (United Nations Center for Human Settlements), the CSC (Commonwealth Science Council) and ARSO (African Regional Organization for Standardization), or to take another example certain programmes undertaken by UNIDO (United Nations Industrial Development Organization) in a number of countries on the subject of the search for quality in CEB production enterprises.

Examples of technical specifications for performance classes

Compressive strenght performances CEB

Technical specifications for CEBs are often limited to giving only a wet compressive strength value. This type of specification often proves fairly unrealistic in practice, as it presupposes a costly laboratory test. In addition, correctly undertaken, the test takes sometime. Moreover, unstabilized blocks cannot generally give sufficiently high performances when wet. While retaining the compressive strength test, one can, however, introduce certain elements which will make the technical specification more realistic. In the first place, a distinction should be made between two class levels, those which use only a dry strength test (for unstabilized blocks) and those which use both a dry and a wet strength test (for stabilized blocks). This differentiation already allows all blocks, even those produced by craft workshops, to be evaluated. In the next place, it is essential to describe the testing method used, as this has a major impact on the results recorded. Comparing blocks tested using different testing methods makes no sense at all. Finally, a simplified testing method might be used for classes 1 and 2. These simplified methods will undoubtedly in general be less precise in absolute terms, but also less costly and therefore better suited to workshop production conditions.

technical characteristics CEB

Even a simplified compressive strength test, however, requires a minimum investment in materials and sufficiently skilled personnel. In the absence of all optimum conditions coming together, one often ends up with tests which are of little scientific value. Tests which are a great deal simpler, but which it is much easier to carry out rigourously, might then tee suggested. Compressive strength is above all an indication of a certain manufacturing quality and of probable durability. One can suggest technical specifications which use indicators other than quality and durability, i.e. dry density and bending strength. There is in fact a fairly high correlation between these characteristics and compressive strength. This means that one can use a multi-class system based on these characteristics. From the economic and practical point of view, this will give a more realistic method for assessing the average level of production making a distinction between craft workshop conditions and industrial production.