Maxwell Marshall

Emprendedor social de Ashoka
Fellow desde 2007
This description of Maxwell Marshall's work was prepared when Maxwell Marshall was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.


Maxwell Marshall is revolutionizing access to housing for the urban and the rural poor by introducing a building technology that combines bamboo and latrite (red sticky clay) as inexpensive and environmentally sustainable alternatives to conventional building materials. A production and delivery system ensures that low-income consumers benefit not only from the finished product but also from the cultivation and production of materials.Maxwell joins the invention-led development group supported by the Lemelson Foundation.

La idea nueva

Alarmed at the mounting financial and environmental cost of conventional construction, Maxwell has developed an affordable and sustainable solution to address the explosive growth of shanty towns around urban centers and the need for affordable and decent housing for the rural poor.
His innovative housing design uses bamboo and latrite as affordable alternatives to cement and timber, two of the major components of conventional building in Nigeria. Bamboo provides many economic and environmental benefits as a building material. Maxwell’s design is intended for prefabrication and has components that are easy to assemble to create additional cost savings and make housing available to everyone. The design is deployed in urban low-income estates, run by his Green Access Initiative. The estates will be built in partnership with government and multilateral agencies to replace shanty towns. Housing will be made available through an evaluation process to ensure that only residents with the most need are selected. Skills transfer training at regional centers will reach rural areas and create income generation and job opportunities for local youths.
Green Access Initiative also promotes the large scale cultivation of bamboo to meet new levels of demand, increase forest reserves in response to the growing threat of climate change and to create increased income generation opportunities for communities. 

El problema

Recent decades have seen continued growth in rural urban migration in Nigeria. In 1985, 39 percent of the population lived in urban centers. It is estimated that by 2010 more than 50 percent of the population will live in urban centers. Lagos—Nigeria’s largest city—has grown from a population of 3.5 million in 1975 to over 6 million today.

Rural housing has evolved little since the beginning of Africa’s colonization. Many people still live in housing that lacks standard hygiene and sanitation conditions—a major factor in urban migration. These housing standards migrate with the rural populations and reappear in urban shanty towns characterized by rickety self-built housing, disease, and over-crowding. These shanty towns lack infrastructure for healthy living.

Conventional building materials are beyond the financial means of the urban and rural poor and most available are environmentally unsustainable. The major components of conventional housing are aluminum, iron, timber, cement, and sand. These materials are expensive and need to be transported great distances. Unregulated and unsustainable harvesting has also led to extensive deforestation and erosion problems.

Meanwhile, new construction technologies that use cheaper alternative materials have not gained ground. The issue is one of cultural norms and acceptability: People want homes that look solid—expensive concrete homes are the most desirable. Mud or latrite is associated with poverty and outdated (rural) modes of living. Reinforced latrite brick houses, for example, did not take off because the final product looked too much like rural mud huts and the cost was still too prohibitive for most of the low-income housing market. In the end, even an aluminum shack is considered preferable to a mud hut. Furthermore, due to soil characteristics the large scale exclusive use of latrite is unsustainable.

Bamboo, despite its tough structural characteristics, abundance, and low cost has not been recognized locally for its potential as a building material despite its growing popularity in other developing countries. One of the major reasons is that the design of bamboo housing does not meet the cultural expectations of the local population for housing that is solid and aesthetically appealing.

The Nigerian government has made numerous efforts since the 1960s to address the issue of low-income urban housing without success. Serviced development sites, slum upgrades, and public housing schemes have merely provided subsidized housing for lower-middle to high- income individuals without meeting the needs of the poorest Nigerians, who remain confined in shanty towns. Slum clearance schemes, which are the government’s preferred response to shanty towns, have caused great dislocation and distress. Meanwhile the rural-urban migration pattern continues and the challenge grows even more intractable.

La estrategia

Through Green Access Initiative Maxwell intends to use the partnerships he has developed with various government agencies and institutions to make decent housing available to low-income groups using his unique design. While writing his graduate thesis in architecture on affordable housing, Maxwell discovered international research and design developments on bamboo. His experience leading construction projects during his post-graduate study had exposed him to the entrenched cultural norms about housing and materials in Nigeria. He studied both global low-cost housing initiatives utilizing bamboo and local initiatives using cement reinforced latrite. He realized that bamboo’s structural characteristics made it perfect for construction and that it was abundantly available locally.

He successfully combined bamboo and latrite in a design that addressed cultural resistance to both materials and achieved further cost reduction. The design was structurally sound and addressed the cultural need for housing that looked “like a regular house.” It reduced the use of latrite and cement and eliminated the use of timber, thereby potentially reducing the cost of building by half. Maxwell’s design calls for a prefabricated model that can be assembled by two people in two days, anywhere in the country, and promises to bring the cost down even further. Patents are pending on all his designs.

Bamboo is indigenous to Nigeria, widely available and easily cultivated. Any type of bamboo can be used in housing construction. Existing growth is expected to meet demand for the next three years while Maxwell’s Green Access Initiative sets up the first three of six regional 70 hectare bamboo plantations planned for the next five years. Each plantation can provide construction grade bamboo for 1,000 houses every three years. Using timber for the same number of houses would destroy 300 hectares of forest. Furthermore, a bamboo forest is seven-teen times more efficient at absorbing green house gases than conventional forests. The root systems are also ideal for holding together fragile soil that is prone to erosion and the falling leaves make good livestock feed. Maxwell has already engaged the Nigerian Horticultural Institute as a technical partner for the cultivation of appropriate bamboo species.

The urban implementation of his design is through a low-cost estate that incorporates environmental and sanitation considerations meant to replace the unplanned urban shanty towns. These estates will be constructed in partnership with government and multilateral agencies. Houses will be sold only to the beneficiaries that meet stringent criteria for allocation and they will be assisted with low-interest mortgage loans. Maxwell is in discussions with a mortgage institution on packaging mortgages for the poor. Re-sale of units will also be restricted to ensure that the houses remain affordable and accessible to target beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, rural communities will be reached through six regional implementation centers that oversee, and receive training, on the construction of the prefabricated units and their assembly. Thirty people will be trained in use of the new building technology in each center. These trainers will hold skills transfer workshops for youth from surrounding communities. The youths are then able to replicate and implement the building in their communities while earning an income selling prefabricated units to the rural and urban market. As the cultivation of bamboo becomes more widespread, the rural implementation centers will provide training in other value added processes like furniture making and flooring, further expanding the income opportunities. There is also the potential for income from trade in carbon credits on the global market for his initiative and beneficiary communities.

Using the management, marketing, and process mapping skills he acquired over a decade working with various organizations, Maxwell outlined and implemented a marketing strategy and developed a preliminary manufacturing process map for standardizing the production of the prefabricated units. Maxwell believes that standardization is the surest way to bring down the cost per unit to its minimum and ensure that the technology can be easily transferred and spread rapidly.

Maxwell has marketed his idea to relevant government institutions, development agencies, and multilateral organizations. He has received significant interest from Ashoka Fellow Isaac Durojaiye who would like Maxwell to design a bamboo latrine toilet shelter, so that he can make his mobile toilets even more accessible to more people.

Maxwell is poised to build this prototype using his extensive preparations and recent influx of resources. He has 6 hectare plot of land in Ikorodu available to immediately start building, a sufficient supply of bamboo from the Nigerian Institute for Horticulture in Ibadan and a number of interested institutional investors. Once the prototype is complete, the prefabricated processes will begin, mortgage packaging designed, and the marketing and spread strategy implemented.

La persona

Maxwell comes from a well-educated lower-middle class family that values hard work and integrity. He understands the difficulty in acquiring a decent house in Nigeria from personal experience, and that of close family and friends. He studied architecture because he wanted to develop his passion for creative design in a “real and functional way.”

He grew up believing that all work should have social value. This led him to design a unique maximum security prison for his graduate project that shifted the emphasis in prison policy from punishment to rehabilitation. His design was chosen for implementation by a government committee set up to make recommendations for reform of prison policy in Nigeria.

Maxwell has used his employment experience to constantly develop and refine his idea over the years, and has made a significant contribution in the field of architecture.