Working in emerging markets such as Africa carries risks and rewards. One of the latter is the chance to be involved in aspirational projects that are professionally and personally fulfilling

Economic instability, geopolitical volatility, poor infrastructure and communication are among the challenges of doing business in Africa, and entry into these markets is not without risk. Many states have significant risk profiles that need to be weighed against opportunity. In Nigeria, the largest economy in West Africa, the government views infrastructure improvements as a key priority, yet the country also endures the spectre of Boko Haram extremism and corruption. Meanwhile in Kenya, the economy has remained resilient and investor confidence proved robust despite the security challenges that have played out on the world’s media.

HOK has been working in the African market – and in particular, West Africa – for the last 10 years, delivering multidisciplinary services. The practice has designed projects ranging from Spur Loop, a five-star boutique hotel in Sierra Leone, to the Exchange Complex, a 98,000m2 mixed-use complex in Accra, Ghana that includes residential, office, hotel and retail. It has also built schools, corporate campuses and resorts, learning many lessons along the way.

Working in the extreme climate just north of the equator presents real design challenges such as how to optimise building orientation, thermal mass strategies, shading techniques, glass coatings and other sustainability measures. 

  • The Exchange, Accra, Ghana. HOK is working to make it a more sustainable project through EDGE certification.
    The Exchange, Accra, Ghana. HOK is working to make it a more sustainable project through EDGE certification.

The importance of partnership

Identifying a local partner is essential to working in many parts of Africa. In Nigeria and Ghana, for example, there is a statute concerning use of local service providers, with governments committed to supporting the education, skills and training of local workers and businesses. The process of knowledge transfer is a key aspect of any relationship and the benefits must flow both ways.

As an international practice, HOK typically serves as lead designer, working from the earliest stages of a project through RIBA Stage 4 design, with local partners focusing on final delivery. Its involvement tends to reduce as a building hits construction phase, though the responsibility for delivery usually remains.

The partnering approach is highly collaborative. When beginning a project, HOK will typically invite the local partner’s team to the UK to acquaint them with the practice’s project delivery processes such as the latest software packages. Its African partners are highly skilled, and many have been educated, trained or employed in Europe or the US. Because many West African countries were formerly Commonwealth states, projects are often designed to UK building regulations. Many clients want buildings designed to international standards, whether UK, US or French.

As the project progresses, HOK communicates regularly with these local partners to leverage their expertise. This enables the design team to benefit from their market intelligence and insights into local regulations and codes that might be applied at the beginning of a project, mitigating costly delays.

Pragmatism is essential. There is no Dun & Bradstreet available to weigh risk management decisions when new opportunities arise. Architects will also be expected to bargain hard on terms and fees, so a personal, informal approach is essential here. Be aware that restrictions on payments outside the country can make it a challenge to collect fees.

Cultural nuances within the client organisation, local design partners and suppliers can also contribute to the complexity of projects in Africa. For instance, clients or users may have other than expected priorities for their new building, or the local architects and suppliers may take an unexpected approach to a given task. Keeping an open mind is essential.

  • Spur Loop, a boutique hotel in Sierra Leone.
    Spur Loop, a boutique hotel in Sierra Leone.

Infrastructure and supply challenges

Architects should be able to deal with the contingencies that any project might throw at them. In Nigeria, for example, there’s no guarantee of a constant electricity supply, so you must factor in the possibility of costly power outage delays in planning the project budget and schedule.

Specification can also be a challenge, and the availability of virtually all materials, aside from concrete and steel rods, will be based on importation. There may also be limitations of import options for specified elements. Purchasing products and materials from abroad creates longer lead times, which affects the construction programme. While local suppliers have made sourcing easier in the African market, specification will continue to be a challenge.

Other considerations include the use of technology in buildings, which must be locally serviceable. 

  • Nigeria promises infrastructure investment yet suffers from corruption. Nevertheless, HOK has designed Atlantic Resort, Victoria Island for Lagos.
    Nigeria promises infrastructure investment yet suffers from corruption. Nevertheless, HOK has designed Atlantic Resort, Victoria Island for Lagos.

Opportunities for design excellence

Africa can offer tremendous opportunities for architects that can navigate through these challenges to design world-class projects.

Take Atlantic Resort, a mixed-use ocean front development of 35,000m2 in Victoria Island, Lagos. With a design inspired by colonial houses and the shells found on Lekki Beach, the development’s complex sculptural form is intended to evoke nature.

Nevertheless, the building’s complexity conceals the requirement of factoring in local construction capabilities while meeting the brief and budget. Simple, modern construction processes were used, with precast concrete sections assembled on-site to deliver the project efficiently, preserving design intent.

Sustainable buildings are also a primary consideration for clients. In April this year, HOK announced a partnership with IFC, a World Bank Group member, to use IFC’s EDGE (Excellence in Design for Greater Efficiencies) green building software and certification system. HOK has committed to using this software certification on five projects in emerging markets such as Africa over the agreement’s first year.

One of these is the mixed-use Exchange Complex in Accra, Ghana, for which HOK provided concept design and where the two residential blocks received preliminary EDGE certification. Sustainable design measures including the use of low-E coated glass, while highly efficient HVAC and lighting systems will reduce energy use by 28% in the two residential blocks. Use of low-flow plumbing fixtures will reduce water use by 25%.

Some multinational corporations are investing in Grade A regional headquarters offices in African countries, including Ghana and Nigeria, with HOK’s design of Oracle’s new open-plan office in Victoria Island, Lagos being one example. The company’s global employee value proposition required the new headquarters to be delivered to the same high standards and specifications as every Oracle building worldwide.

While entry into these markets may not be for the faint-hearted, requiring a steep learning curve, it’s encouraging to see what can be achieved by architectural firms through collaboration, innovation and persistence in this quickly evolving continent.