Ousman Touray, Phioneers: Pursuing a vision of sustainable building in Africa
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The Companies that Care podcast highlights business leaders who are making a difference in the world. I have a passion for companies that care and give back to their communities, like Phioneers based in London, UK, and The Gambia. My guest, Ousman Touray, is an ecopreneur with a mission to improve the quality of life in developing parts of the globe through sustainable and eco-friendly architecture, engineering, and technology.
Ousman was born in London to two parents from The Gambia in West Africa. The Gambia is the smallest country in mainland Africa. When Ousman was 10, his parents decided to move back home.
“That played a big part in what I'm doing now, because I got to experience life outside the developing world in my grandma's house.”
From age 10 to 17, Ousman spent time with loads of cousins, uncles, and aunties, eating together and sleeping on a big mattress.
“We shared everything. There were many challenges, but the togetherness made those challenges fun. I saw how large families lived in small spaces, having to go to other homes to get fresh water or electricity, or use a phone.”
As someone who has always liked engineering, nature, and construction, Ousman knew he wanted to use those passions to make a difference in the world.
“I always paid attention to the way things were built and how one big forest would disappear because someone started a big housing estate.”
Inspired by nature geography shows like Sir David Attenborough, Ousman decided he wanted to do something to help with the solution.
As a young person in The Gambia, Ousman was an active member of the Red Cross. When natural disasters would strike, he’d be in the forefront, helping people share food, cooking, and cleaning, working with refugees. He’s always done stuff for free, not expecting anything in return.
When he returned to London at age 17, Ousman studied civil engineering and construction and went to work as a civil engineer and project manager. Now he is a portfolio manager for a company that works fully in Africa. The local teams are at least 99% nationals of the country where they are operating.
“It's empowering people to give them opportunities and training. And from London it's like a governance role where you're providing the support they need to grow their offices.”
I asked him what it was like, going back to the UK at age 17.
“In the developed world we take a lot of things for granted...having a consistent uninterrupted electricity supply, water supply, books to read, pens, and pencils are not fully available for everyone on the other side of the pond…being able to mend your shoe if it's broken instead of chucking it in the bin. Because you know that you won't have another pair, you know how to mend it.”
In addition to his regular job, Ousman founded Phioneers because he wanted to solve problems with infrastructure, waste, unsustainable materials, construction methods, and environmental damage. His mission is to improve the quality of life for people in developing countries by using sustainable and eco-friendly architecture, engineering, and technology.
As an ecopreneur, Ousman focuses on eco-friendliness, caring about the environment, and community building.
“It is creating a habitat, an ecosystem where everything within it (in terms of economy, social, and the environment) works together to run as one system. It’s not a case where the economy compromises the society and the environment, or the other way around. Everything is considered. The jobs created, the way the community is run, the way everything works, is fully in sync.”
Inspired by Dr. Sanduk Ruit, an ophthalmologist from Nepal who takes 50 percent of his income from paying clients and then provides free vision services for people who cannot pay, Ousman has developed a unique delivery model whereby he provides high-quality services for his customers, but he gets income from only a percentage of it. When people pay for his services, he uses some of that income to provide homes for free to those who cannot afford them.
Ousman helps developers in developing African countries choose more sustainable materials for their construction projects, instead of products that need to be imported from elsewhere. For example, he is advising a university complex to choose sustainable design materials and site the project without adversely affecting the environment.
“As much as we're pushing sustainability over here, they're still stuck to the other ways of building, which shifted from the traditional ways that people used to build hundreds of years ago to the modern steel, cement, and concrete industry. None of those materials are available locally, so they're imported. They're made in these big factories that release tons of carbon into the atmosphere and in the process, Africa is losing thousands of hectares of natural habitat each year...A lot more needs to be done to find a solution, because we're losing animals. Most animals are nearly extinct now.”
Ousman observes that Africans are scrapping the technology that helped them build the pyramids. The old methods still work, but they’re not being applied everywhere.
“Some (African) regions are still blessed with natural resources like bamboo and stuff, and they're still building homes from it. It's a traditional solution.”
Ousman views partnerships as key to his success.
“We share ideas. We saw that our goals are aligned and we formed partnerships. We believe in working together as global small businesses instead of having a big team trying to do everything by itself, reinventing the wheel.”
Ousman observes, especially in Africa, that many people live together in extended family settings in a very small space.
“They can't move out and build their own home. It's a big social pain. The average cost of a home in in Africa is $40,000, and 85% of the population earns under $5 a day.”
Ousman hopes to provide low-cost eco-friendly homes for sub-Saharan Africans living under the poverty line.
“We will do that by going back hundreds of years, looking at how it was done, then adding a bit of modern engineering to make it strong enough and provide a basic home that people can move into to find more comfort and share memories with their families.”
Ousman is working with a university in London on testing materials that will meet their cost goals and sustainability goals and can be built by local people.
I asked Ousman for his five-year goal.
“I envision standing in front of a community of homes built by us, a housing estate that's been designed by us or influenced by our decisions. I envision standing in front of a team of engineers and marketers giving a daily briefing of what needs to be done and traveling around the continent of Africa and beyond, talking to people about how we can help house people…how we can help make a bigger impact.”
I asked Ousman what advice he has for others who want to create companies that care.
“Certain things need to be done to start a business, and most of us have these ideas, but we don't really think about what's needed to make it ready for the next stage…the key to being able to prepare for all of those things is being passionate about the reason why you're starting that company…attaching it to a big problem that you want to solve. If you don't have that drive and that passion, you won't see it through because it's not easy.”
With a day job, wife, and two-year-old son, Raheim, Ousman wakes up at 5:00 a.m. every day to get everything done. He encourages listeners to look him up at @simplous on Instagram and @Phioneers on Facebook.
“I'm always happy to connect with people to learn more from them as well.”
It was a pleasure to interview Ousman, and I am hoping Phioneers will be highly successful in helping people in Africa be able to access sustainably built homes.
Next week I interview Leslie Batchelder on the Finding Fertile Ground podcast. Leslie’s a professor of popular culture at Portland State University. She had a rough childhood with all kinds of abuse, followed by a nervous breakdown at age 19, infertility and the premature birth of her son, and three bouts with cancer. She is a true survivor!
On both of my podcasts I strive to highlight voices from historically excluded populations, especially people of color, women, people who are LGBTQIA, non-Christian, and immigrants, people who don't always get a platform. You can find all the information on my website and social media.
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