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Sector study on building materials in Bangladesh

In 1990 and 1991 SKAT in collaboration with the BASIN-Network, prepared a sector study on building materials on behalf of SDC (Swiss Development Cooperation). The study team was composed of experienced BASIN members, accordingly to specific demand, and a local counterpart team.

The main objective of the study was to identify opportunities for the effective promotion of alternative and/or improved building materials in Bangladesh, with the overall goal of employment creation.

The Study had two focal points:

-Provision of basic data on the building materials sector
-Formulation of specific project and/or action research proposals in the form of "Action Packages".

Action-Orientation and Participation

The study is decidedly action-oriented, aiming at identifying of a practical and feasible development programme. The enormous scope of the subject matter made it necessary to analyse market and industries in a "horizontal" review in a first phase and to carry out "vertical" in-depth studies on selected issues in a second phase. A local study team and an advisory panel were in charge of assuring the participation of decision-makers of the market and potential partners for further activities. One of the main targets, namely co-operating with private entrepreneurs, could not be achieved satisfactorily. The existing business culture and the overwhelming-presence of NGOs in the market set clear constraints to this goal.


The aim was not just to gather information but also to build contacts with potential participants in the anticipated development programme. The Study Team, consisting of seven international experts, seven local experts and research associates, was therefore assisted by a local Advisory Panel of distinguished local professionals. The Study was conducted in two main phases:

Phase 1: February to June 1990
Phase 2: May to August 1991

Phase 1 concentrated on the "horizontal" review of the building materials sector, the survey of existing industries and markets, and the identification of development potentials or "seeds". These "seeds" have been selected at a "Screening Session" in Dhaka with the participation of the Advisory Panel. The findings of Phase 1 were presented in an Interim Report dated November 1990.

Phase 2 focused on in-depth investigations of the main "seeds", as well as the study of less promising development possibilities. The objective was the formulation of "action packages". The proposals have been reviewed at a Final Seminar in Dhaka with the participation of the Advisory Panel and representatives of interested institutions, NGOs and private enterprises. The results are presented in a Final Report. The approach to start with a "horizontal" overview study proved to be very important to understand the economic, political and social environment which would support or hinder any interventions in future.

Background and Development Context

The average per capita GNP was $160 in 1987 end over 50% of the population is unable to afford sufficient caloric intake. While the development outlook is bleak, enormous untapped potentials do, in fact, exist; irrigated areas could, for example, be more than doubled. Only 9 % of household income on the average is presently spent on housing; 63 % of all dwellings consisted of bamboo and straw in 1981. Urbanization, presently at 13 % of the population, is rising. Average farm holdings are extremely small and an estimated 23 million people must find non-agricultural employment in the next two decades.

Overview of the Building Materials Sector

Construction activity in Bangladesh expanded steadily during the Eighties as a result of a modest rate of economic growth, substantial amounts of project and commodity aid, and a significant inflow of remittances from Bangladeshis working overseas. The demand for civil-engineering work fluctuated from year to year, but the trend is also generally upwards, with significant feeder road projects in the pipeline.

This expansion of construction activity generated a significant increase in the demand for basic building materials such as cement, steel, sand, bricks, timber, bamboo and CI sheets. A number of these materials are imported or produced locally on the basis of imported inputs. Other materials are produced in Bangladesh from local resources (bricks, sand, aggregates, timber and bamboo). With these products, there tend to be short-term constraints to the expansion of supply. The brick industry in particular has proved to be amazingly flexible in its response to changes in demand.

Given the high import dependence of the construction sector, further expansion of "modern" construction activity is contingent upon the continued inflow of aid and remittances from the overseas. Any decline in these inflows could lead to the development of both capital and foreign exchange constraints. In this scenario Bangladesh, in common with other developing countries, may be forced to rely upon the development of its own resources to a far greater extent than at present.

Survey of Existing Industries

Field surveys of eight existing industries have been conducted: brick making, clay tile, cement, concrete product, asbestos fibre cement, steel, timber, bamboo.

Brick-making exists throughout the country. Most units are small sized, producing about 1 to 2 million bricks per year and employing 50 to 100 workers. Timber is one of Bangladesh's few natural resources. About two-thirds of the timber consumption are used for fuel in cooking and industry. The remainder is used for paper manufacture and construction.

Bamboo is the most important building material in Bangladesh, judging by the extent of use. While it is traded throughout the country, a large portion of the bamboo consumption is grown and consumed locally, in an informal manner. While it is a very profitable crop and demand is high, the level of production seems to be declining. The survey has also included a number of "alternative" building materials, such as earth construction, cement products, MCR/FCR (Micro-Concrete Roofing), asphalt roofing sheets and lime production.

Identification of Development Potentials

At the end of the first phase, development potentials selected for further study and preparation as action packages were referred to as "seeds". The process of selecting seeds, called "screening", involved a consideration of economic significance, market demand, employment effect, technical potentials, particular problems and/or opportunities.

The selected seeds, classified as "main-lines", were: brick-making, bamboo preservation and bamboo construction. Further investigated as "side lines" were clay tile manufacture, lime manufacture, fibre-and micro-concrete roofing, timber preservation, concrete products and asbestos roofing sheets. The "main lines", clay tile production and bamboo, were investigated in more depth.


Production processes are traditional for the most part, and it seems that few efforts have been made to improve either the industry, the production processes or the products. The industry is highly energy intensive, with energy accounting for about 50% of production costs. Though well adapted to the natural and socio-economic conditions of Bangladesh, the brick industry does face some problems, particularly with regard to energy. Several options are considered for improving the situation. These include increasing the load (number of bricks) in the kiln, improving draught/temperature control through a different flue/chimney system and introducing a high draught kiln. Other possibilities for improving the output and the product quality would be to decrease drying losses and to introduce mechanical extruders to make higher grade bricks with or without perforations.

Clay Tile Production

The roof tile industry, which makes roofing and ridge tiles, is concentrated in the western part of the country. Given the cost and other advantages of tiles, their introduction in other areas of the country may be considered. This would require technical assistance in setting up production units, investigations in raw material availability and marketing promotion.


Bamboo is one of the most important materials in the life of all inhabitants of Bangladesh; over 60% of all houses are built with bamboo. However serious problems do exist. Bamboo is more expensive in Bangladesh than elsewhere in the world. The useful life of bamboo in construction is very short and plantations suffer from overcutting. The short use life is the key problem; this situation may be improved through better construction details and/or through chemical preservation. Preservatives are toxic, and one of the main issues in preservation is to avoid health hazards and environmental risks. Applied research is required regarding the fixation of preservative in the specific conditions in Bangladesh.

Multi-Levelled Strategy

It is recommended that the SDC base its sector policy on certain essential principles in order to achieve sustainable projects. These include the transfer of initiative to building materials producers themselves, who would have to express their needs and to actively participate in planning improvements.

The strategy should be multi-levelled and emphasize as far as possible a supply-side approach; isolated technical inputs and/or the creation of artificial demand will have little chance for success in long term.

Action packages which emerged from the in-depth studies were compared and prioritized according to the expressed need, potential impact, chances for success and required inputs: a measure of common sense was also applied.

Final Remarks

The study was very challenging and most enjoyable due to both the subject and to the good team of local and foreign professionals. Roland Stulz and Karl Wehrle, INTEP/SKAT