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“World’s First” 3D Printed School Opens in Malawi, Africa

The first 3D printed school has been inaugurated in Malawi, thanks to 14Trees, a joint venture between LafargeHolcim and the CDC Group, and a BOD2 3D printer from COBOD. The news follows the use of COBOD machines to produce the first 3D printed one-, two-, and three-story buildings in Europe.

According to UNICEF, Malawi lacks some 36,000 classrooms, which 14Trees estimates would take about 70 years to build using traditional methods. Instead, the company proposes the use of 3D printing to produce the same number of rooms in just 10 years. For this reason, the firm took the BOD2 3D printer to the southeastern African country and built what it is calling the “world’s first” 3D printed school.

The BOD2 printer on-site in Malawi. Image courtesy of COBOD and Bennie Khanyizira.

The walls for the building were 3D printed in only 18 hours. Using the BOD2 model 4-4-2—which can print structures up to 10 meters long and wide and three meters high—14Trees 3D printed a 56 m2 facility. Lessons have already begun at the site and Juliana Kuphanga Chikandila, the Primary Education Advisor to the country’s Director of Education, Youth and Sports, was pleased with the result:

“I am very impressed by the new building – its durability and design provides the space and facilities that students did not have before. This school will attract more students, and those learners that had left will return to education,” Kuphanga Chikandila said.

Students in the 3D printed school in Malawi. Image courtesy of COBOD and Bennie Khanyizira.

There has been some media attention drawn to a proposed 3D printed school in Madagascar; however, COBOD International pointed out in its press release that this project has not yet initiated construction. In contrast, the facility in Malawi has already been completed. This serves as a reminder to be wary of any claims of “firsts” in this industry or any. Whereas the organization behind the Madagascar project has little experience in additive construction, COBOD has created numerous projects around the world at this point. So, while I might be skeptical about the school in Madagascar taking off, COBOD’s proposed project in Saudi Arabia seems more viable.

The completed school 3D printed in Malawi. Image courtesy of COBOD and Bennie Khanyizira.

In the case of 14Trees, which aims to 3D print buildings across the continent of Africa, the partners behind the joint venture are both established, as well. LafargeHolcim is a publicly traded French-Swiss multinational with nearly $29 billion in revenues and about 72,000 across 70 countries. With a focus in building materials like cement, asphalt and mortar, it was the 280th-largest public company in the world in 2020 according to Forbes. As far as I know, the only firm bigger than LafargeHolcim in additive construction is Saint-Gobain. 14Trees’ other joint owner, CDC Group, is a U.K. government-owned financial institution that has spent over 70 years investing in Asia and Africa.

In our discussion with an affordable housing expert, we learned that, in the U.S., the housing crisis has less to do with construction technology and more to do with policy and the commodification of homes. Though this obviously cannot be extrapolated to the countries of Africa, I can imagine a similar situation with regard to schooling there. However, it does seem that, if 36,000 classrooms could be 3D printed in 10 years, rather than conventionally built in 70, that would have a significant impact on construction and the state of schooling on the continent as a whole.

14Trees is continuing its work on the continent, with Miljan Gutovic, Region Head of Europe, Middle East and Africa at LafargeHolcim Group, pointing to where the joint venture is headed next:

”I am very proud of how our colleagues at 14Trees have deployed cutting-edge 3D printing technology to solve such an essential infrastructure need. Now that we have proven the concept in Malawi, we look forward to scaling up this technology across the broader region, with projects already in the pipeline in Kenya and Zimbabwe”.

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