While presenting a paper on the impact of sand harvesting from dry river beds and its significance in the construction industry in October last year, Prof Jackson Kitetu made a clarion call to real estate players to start packing sand in 50-, 25-, 10- and five-kilogramme bags for sale in hardware shops, as is done with cement. He was speaking during the National Construction Authority’s Annual Construction Research Conference and Exhibition at the Kenyatta International Convention Centre in Nairobi.
What the scholar didn’t know, however, was that Ms Rose Muigai, a solicitor in the United Kingdom (UK) and advocate of the Kenya High Court, had already foreseen the gap and was packing ballast in small bags for convenience after registering a company, Ballast and Construction Dust Aggregates Ltd (BC&D) earlier that month.
Ms Muigai, set up her company after undergoing a trying experience when buying materials for a renovation project.
“For a long time I wondered how those who wished to buy ballast in small quantities managed to transport the same,” she told the Business Daily earlier this year. “That day I was making repairs, and I was required to pay for the wheelbarrow, the person delivering it and the ballast itself. I found this a very complicated and expensive way of doing things and decided to do something about it.”
With that idea and some money, she conducted a research and after due diligence, started a company with the aim of helping modernise raw material supplies for both small- and large-scale builders.
One of the people who has benefited from Ms Muigai’s venture is Ms Grace Njuguna, whose house in Ruai on the outskirts of Nairobi has taken seven years to build and counting.
Ms Njuguna told DN2 that her house is taking an inordinately long time to finish due to financial constraints. Still, she moved in this year and even though it is not complete, she says that ever since B&CD Ltd set up a factory in her neighbourhood, the construction of her two-bedroom house has speeded up considerably.
“I had been saving small amounts before then until I had enough to buy say, a lorry-full of sand, then I would start saving once again for a lorry-full of ballast. When Rose set up her company in the neighbourhood, a window of opportunity opened for me. With the little money I saved from my business, I started buying a few bags of ballast and vumbi (rock sand) daily until it was enough to, say finish building one room. I have moved into the house and I am now doing the corridors,” says Ms Njuguna.
She adds that, given that builders are required to buy material in bulk makes the whole construction process difficult.
“If you don’t have enough money to buy a lorry-full of ballast, you have to wait until you have saved enough. I found buying small amounts quite friendly and cost-effective since I can buy just the amount I need. Meanwhile, if you buy materials from a vendor using a wheelbarrow to measure the quantity, you can’t be sure of the amount since some wheelbarrows are shallower than the average size,” she notes.
Apart from ballast, the company also sells Mchele (smaller-sized ballast) and vumbi, (rock sand that can be used instead of river sand), which it packs in 50kg and 60kg respectively.
With real estate insiders whom DN2 spoke to already predicting a major disruption in the way of doing business when this model fully catches on, what benefits can builders hope to reap from it?
Well, clients living far from the construction site who cannot travel there frequently to determine whether construction materials are being misappropriated or stolen can now have peace of mind since, to ascertain the amount of material that has been used, they only need to count the number bags at the construction site.
Asked whether she has had issues of theft in her construction project, Ms Lisa Muthoni, one of B&CD clients, said: “They always steal. Often, you will get calls from the foreman telling you that the materials are exhausted or that they need more money for this and that but when you compare the amount of work done with the quantity of materials used, the equation does not add up.”
She added: “I asked Ms Muigai to supply a nearby hardware shop with packed ballast so that my foreman could pick the materials from that shop. I could pay for the materials later and visit the site to check on the progress. I found the practice very effective in curbing theft since you can easily keep track of your construction materials simply by counting the number of bags on site.”
One way in which vendors of construction material swindle buyers is by using lorries with a false bottom to ferry the material. Using sand as an example, the CEO of construction firm Pacific Reality Mr Furrowson Muriithi told DN2 that a 21-tonne lorry-full of sand usually goes for Sh21, 000, but a supplier might come to you and offer to sell you the same amount of sand for, say Sh18,000. If this happens, he cautions, beware because such lorries usually have false bottoms that unscrupulous suppliers use to exploit buyers. And thanks to the false bottom, you end up receiving only 14 tonnes of sand instead of the expected 21.
The practice is aggravated by the fact that at the moment, building materials are sold mostly in bulk. However, with packed material, it is more difficult for sellers to swindle buyers.
“If you are doing renovations to your house or building a new house and the contractor says you need 100 bags of cement, you just multiply that by three and place an order for 300 bags of ballast at the nearest hardware shop,” says Ms Muigai, adding that when making mortar, you need three bags of ballast for every bag of cement.
But perhaps the main advantages of packed ballast that is likely to make many people opt for it is cost saving.
Using the traditionally known unit of measure, a wheelbarrow, Ms Muigai explains:
“With most quarries located within the Ukambani area, the further you are from the quarry the more expensive a wheelbarrow-full of ballast will cost you. For instance, if you are building near the quarry, you will pay between Sh200 and Sh250 for a wheelbarrow of ballast but if you are further away, say in Karen, Ngong or Kiambu, the same wheelbarrow-full of ballast will set you back Sh350 to Sh450.
She goes on to add “To us it doesn’t matter how far you are; you will buy a 50kg bag of ballast, which is equivalent to one wheelbarrow-full, for Sh150 whether in Nakuru, Naivasha, Meru, Thika, Nairobi or Athi River.”
Then there is the fact that storing of packaged leftover sand at the end of a project is much easier, besides reducing wastage and leaving the site clean.
“If you buy more than you need, you can easily pile up the remaining bags in your store for future use. On the other hand, a heap of ballast or sand poured into your compound tends to litter it and besides dirtying your compound, most of it ends up in landfills,” says Ms Muigai. She adds that the environmental friendliness has endeared her venture to the environmentally conscious, a factor that has seen her company pack more than a 1,000 bags daily.
The menace that is the collapse of buildings that has bedevilled the construction sector has for long been blamed partly on substandard work and the quality of materials used. In an attempt to make some money on the side, the foreman or fundi in charge of construction, when purchasing material, usually go for low-quality material, thus compromising on the quality of building.
Ms Muigai says that her company has sought to put an end to this by sourcing for material from a reliable quarry, something she says assures their buyers of quality.
Packed ballast also comes as a blessing to hardware shop owners. Hardware shop operators who stock construction material such as sand or ballast outside their shops have a lot of problems to deal with. Besides paying to the county council for the space occupied by the heap of sand or ballast, the material is sometimes also stolen at night.
In addition, the shop owner has no guarantee that the seller supplied the right quantity, given that some vendors use lorries with false bottoms to dupe buyers.
The advantages of smaller packs of ballast
- Easy to transport because you don’t necessarily need a lorry
- Easy to monitor the quantity used
- The bags are lined with plastic so it does not leave dust particles
- Easy to store leftover bags even in the house
- You get the quantity that’s indicated on the bag
MOVEMENT CAN BE TRACKED
Thanks to the packing, however, Ms Muigai says that besides being able to keep the material indoors where it is safe, they can now feed the amounts into a computer using bar codes on the bags to track the movement of materials in and out of their shops.
To buyers, packed ballast means that when shopping for construction materials, they can pick cement and ballast at one stop, saving them time and money. When buying cement, clients tend to have a pick-up truck or a lorry ferry the material to the site due to the dust billowing from the bags of cement. Notably, this is not the case with packed ballast.
“We have lined our bags so that there are no dust particles coming out of it. This means you can carry your bag of ballast in the boot of your car without worrying that it is going to make the boot dirty. Consequently, the dust-free aspect means you can store the bags of ballast in your house comfortably,” says Ms Muigai.
Whether building from scratch or making renovations, one of the conventional pieces of advice your contractor is likely to give you is to avoid building during the rainy season.
Mr Clifford Ogunda, a foreman at a construction site on Thika Road, told DN2 that during the rainy season, it is difficult to access the quarries because most road networks are usually flooded.
However, he acknowledges that if materials such as sand and ballast were to be bought from hardware shop, “Things would be much easier and construction would stop being dependent on the weather.”
This, he noted would cut the cost and time it takes to complete a building.
Praising Ms Muigai’s idea as timely, Mr Ogunda said that such an idea would help construction managers save costs, endearing them to their clients, besides getting them more work.
“We rely mostly on referrals, so if you do a good job today you can be assured of another one tomorrow. One of the factors that can drive you crazy is the cost of construction materials. I can tell you for a fact that between the river, where say sand is being harvested, and the construction site, where you expect a lorry-full of sand, a quarter of your sand will disappear. This is the sand or ballast you find heaped by the road with a pole bearing a “For sale” sign prominently implanted in the middle,” Mr Ogunda noted.
For young people, Ms Muigai’s business venture could not have come at a better time, given that the country’s unemployment level is at an all-time high. “Instead of setting up cybercafés, young people can now open hardware shops and start selling packed ballast, which does not require a lot of capital to start, unlike a cyber café.
For instance, with just Sh1,500, one can start with 10 bags and then grow the business pretty fast. Later, they can decide to venture into the real estate business,” says Ms Muigai.