Elijah Djan and his paper bricks will bring the house down!

Posted on 04 May 2017.

This young South African came up with the idea of making bricks from waste paper and using them to build affordable homes. The Nubrix project.

In circular economics, the most striking stories often involve a need and determination. This is true of the Nubrix project initiated by a 21-year-old South African entrepreneur, Elijah Djan. His building brick made from paper waste addresses two of South Africa’s problems - the shortage of low-cost housing and the build-up of paper waste.

According to a report by the Department of Environmental Affairs and the Waste Information Center, South Africa generated 108 million tonnes of waste in 2011, only some 10% of which was recycled. In the video showing his revolutionary brick, Elijah Djan explains that his country produces 2 million tonnes of paper waste a year - only half of which is recycled -and nearly 1.2 million people live in makeshift huts.

An idea that has come a long way

His Nubrix start-up addresses two problems – it offers a building material that is three times cheaper than conventional bricks, and it can be used to build accessible, ecological housing.

In 2006 when he was just 11, he came up with the idea of using paper waste to create a new, inexpensive and environmentally friendly building material. He says, “I saw my dad, who is a lecturer, burning old textbooks. I knew that it was bad for the environment, but my dad said he wouldn’t stop doing it unless I had a better idea for how to use the paper. A few months later, I saw a documentary about shortages for good, low-income housing in the South Africa. That’s when I got the idea. Why not kill two birds with one stone and make building materials out of recycled paper? Elijah Djan then produced his first brick prototype and spent years working on the idea.

In 2016, then an industrial engineering student at the University of Pretoria, he realized that the first prototypes left in the family garden were still solid. Would the idea be viable? He decided to launch his company, Nubrix. He has won several innovation awards including the Gauteng Province Prize – the area around Pretoria and Johannesburg - and was given 14,000 euros towards the technical development of his invention.

One brick at a time

Elijah Djan is quite clear. To be marketed on a large scale, his bricks will have to pass a battery of acoustic, thermal and durability tests required for obtaining the necessary technical certifications. He has successfully performed laboratory tests: the Nubrix brick does not distort under the action of water and is fire resistant. He estimates that it would take about 1,200 kg of paper to build the walls of a house.

Mentored by Phumlani Nkontwana, a South African businessman who sponsors him through the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation set up by the South African billionaire Allan Gray, Elijah Djan was awarded a research grant. In December 2016, he even presented his invention to the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States.

In March 2017, in Johannesburg, Nubrix was one of the projects selected by the first Global Entrepreneurship Congress (GEC) organized on the African continent. One brick at a time, Elijah Djan continues to believe in his project.