How a humble fast-growing crop offers solutions for low-cost eco-construction in Malaysia
Most Southeast Asian countries share a common problem: the scarcity of suitable and affordable housing for an ever-growing population. On the other hand, countries in this region often have suitable climate and abundant unfarmed or abandoned land that could be used by the rural communities to grow cash and food crops.
Back in 2016, social impact enterprise AffordAble Abodes Sdn Bhd started to investigate suitable crops that would yield a profit and promote local economies, as well as provide refuse material for the production of sustainable building materials.
What they found as most useful and fast-growing in the local climate was kenaf (hibiscus cannabinus).
A LOOK AT KENAF
Indigenous to Africa and Asia, kenaf is from the same family as other fibrous crops, such as okra and cotton. Cultivated for thousands of years, it has traditionally been used as a source of food and textile fibres.
The plant is highly adaptable to different climates and soil conditions and requires minimal pesticides or weed management, compared to similar crops such as hemp or maize. At maturity, the kenaf plant components have varied applications—animal feed, compost, seed oil, paper pulp and insulation.
In Malaysia, the National Kenaf and Tobacco Board (Lembaga Kenaf dan Tembakau Negara, or LKTN) replaced the National Tobacco Board in 2009, focusing on the cultivation of kenaf as a viable alternative to tobacco with potential for large-scale economic impact.
LKTN estimates more than 2,000 hectares are being cultivated for kenaf production (not including private growers), primarily in Kedah, Kelantan, Pahang, Perlis and Terengganu. Kenaf cultivation under LKTN is primarily focused on fibre production for industrial applications, such as automotive components or bio-composite materials, which are exported to China, South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Europe.
BUILDING WITH KENAF
The current use of kenaf as building materials is primarily as insulation and fibre-reinforced composites. Due to their low density and cellulosic structure, kenaf fibres significantly limit heat and sound transmissions, while retaining its ductility and strength. Research has also demonstrated some use of kenaf fibres as reinforcement for earth-based building blocks.
Kenaf has been identified by researchers as a suitable component of composite polymer materials, based on the strength of its natural fibres and environmentally-friendly properties.
When combined with other materials such as plastics or resins, it can be used for a wide range of applications, such as wood-plastic composites, compressed bio-composite boards, or compressed fibre for decorative purposes. While these materials have not been fully commercialised, early research has demonstrated its strong potential in commercial polymer materials.
AffordAble Abodes has developed Kenafcrete for application in building blocks and structural panels.
Founder Tim Tan started his research by producing bricks in his partner’s backyard, using very simple machinery and tools. Today, most of the production is now run out of the company’s factory near Muar, Johor.
The structural panels are the first of its kind in the market and have been designed for quick and standardised installations. They are prefabricated and shipped to project sites ready for installation, saving significant time and labour costs. The entire installation system is linked to other phases of construction (such as roofing or M&E). It is estimated that a crew of six can erect the walls for a 1,000-square-foot house in just three days.
The panels are also about 50 to 60 per cent lighter than traditional concrete wall panels, which reduces the costs for foundations or structural reinforcements. For example, the developer of a current project in Kampung Lubok, Johor, was able to save 30 per cent of the foundation costs due to the lighter overall building weight. As the panels are full structural building elements, there is also no need for casting reinforced concrete beams and columns.
With the product’s thermal insulation qualities, builders can save on insulation costs. Kenafcrete has also passed SIRIM fire testing and is currently being researched for fire doors and other protective applications.
Composed of more than 97 per cent upcycled biomass and binders, this composite material can help absorb and lock down greenhouse gas emissions in a permanent form. A simple 100-square-metre house can lock down the equivalent of an entire year of CO2 emissions by a standard passenger car.
The use of upcycled materials also replaces the need for sand or granite, and by extension, eliminates environmental impact of sand and granite mining.
AffordAble Abodes seeks to empower the less fortunate to provide a home and livelihood for themselves and their families.
One of its objectives is to create sustainable economies in rural areas, which will also help to defray some of the problems of urbanisation. By expanding the use and marketability of kenaf, farmers can earn higher incomes through self-sustaining micro economies.
With the goal of ‘one day, one house’, the Kenafcrete system only requires unskilled or semi-skilled labour with minimal product training, which will see more affordable housing being built and locals being employed.
In urban areas, AffordAble Abodes is also partnering on projects for slum redevelopment, school upgrades and highrise apartments. It has completed several urban housing projects in Muar, with plans for others in Penang, Johor Bahru and Seremban. Its long-term goals is to provide safe and affordable ‘urban transit housing’ for those moving from the rural to urban environments.