An ecomaterials workshop

Kurt Rhyner   

It is a small factory for construction materials in Diriamba, Nicaragua, producing Micro Concrete Roofing (MCR) tiles as well as hollow blocks and paving bricks. Micro Concrete Roofing tiles are by now a standard product in many countries of Latin America and the workshop actually has been producing since 1985 in one form or another. It probably was the first commercial MCR producer in Latin America, and maybe the oldest active one in the world.

 

In 1998 the production of alternative cement (CP 40) was started on a trial and error base. Raw materials are locally available, volcanic sand with good puzzolanic activity is being mined just a few kilometers away, and lime burning plants exist at a few dozen kilometers distance. This cement was used to substitute ordinary Portland cement in hollow blocks, which lowered the production costs significantly.

In the year 2000 the workshop got its own structure, independent from the project center of Grupo Sofonias. Since then the production of tiles, paving stones, blocks and CP 40 has been following the market development. This was not easy, as Nicaragua is in the midst of a profound crisis and many producers of construction materials have gone out of business or are dormant.

In the first year of its new existence, the factory produced 105,000 tiles and sold 94,000, about 61% of its installed capacity. Production of CP 40 started only several months later, and 21 tons were produced, which then were used to substitute Portland cement in the production of paving stones and hollow blocks. In the first six months a total of 90,000 units were produced. The interesting fact is that even without full production, the workshop provided a net gain of $US 820 per month, after taking into account amortization of the equipment and installation.

Quality the most important issue

The Diriamba workshop concentrates on being a model and has established tight quality control mechanisms. Martin Melendez, who advises the workshop on a regular basis is tough on this subject. He has put into function all aspects of the EcoSur quality control mechanisms (after all the procedures for MCR tiles were his invention) and all tiles conform to the highest standards. They would easily qualify for all generic national norms and standards known to us.

The production of CP 40 has similar controls, though there is not yet the same level of experience as in the case of the tiles, as it is a much newer technological application. After several months of trial and error they now have established procedures that allow for easy checking and can guarantee a good standard. The daily production of about 600 to 800kg is used for cement blocks and paving stones, where it replaces between 30 and 40% of the Portland cement. The final products are tested at the national university and easily fulfill the national norms (60kg/cm2 for the blocks and 210kg/cm2 for the paving stones).

Unfortunately, the public does not often honor such strict compliance with standards, and it is no surprise that most other producers do not even bother to test their products. But even so, Ecomaterials workshop is selling its higher quality product almost 20% cheaper than the competition.

A living school

The workshop is a training and education center for Central America. Usually the interested people come for a visit of a few days to get acquainted with the technology and do some practice with the teachers, but mainly get to study all the business aspects. Then they return to their country and start analyzing their specific situation. This way, we avoid the expensive step of sending an expert to make a feasibility study. Instead, the future producer is being educated to do his own market study and can then collect some raw materials and send them to be tested at the laboratory.

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Peter Dunckley
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Housing delivery services, project proposals, budgeting

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