Toby Cumberbatch

Professor of Electrical Engineering


Reuse of Available Material, Energy, Structures and Supplies for Emergency Shelter

The international president of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), Dr. Unni Karunakara, recently described Mogadishu, the Somali capital, as dotted with plastic sheets supported by twigs, sheltering groups of weak and starving people who had walked in from the worst affected areas in southern and central Somalia[1].

Reading this as engineers, we realized that tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of destitute refugees in Somalia and Northern Kenya could benefit from a better solution to the problem of access to emergency shelter in a region with extremely limited resources. Building upon our earlier investigations into the design of shelters constructed from freely available materials in very poor countries, we have taken on the challenge of disseminating the design for a shelter constructed from what’s at hand onto the streets of Somalia and into the environs of the Dadaab camp in Northern Kenya by the end of 2011.

We appreciate that the shelter needs to address both the immediate needs of the refugees in terms of protection from the elements and personal security – and also the more intangible demands of providing a space within which dignity and self-determination can be nurtured and restored. The shelter design must meet these requirements within the severe constraints imposed by available material, the political and cultural environments, and the trauma of the displaced individuals.

Key constituents of the final design are that it be available as a sequence of pictograms whose content is accessible for self-build by the intended occupants; that it include a variety of solutions for implementing the baseline structural components to accommodate the variability of available resources; that the structure be able to withstand the climate; and be comprised of materials that do not elevate pollution of the surroundings.

We seek assistance with all aspects of this project, and, believe that with access to the necessary information, we have the commitment, drive and access to expertise that we need to achieve our goal. However, only those in Mogadishu and Dadaab can provide the answers to many of our questions.

[1] Tracy McVeigh,, Saturday 3 September 2011