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Charter Cities Podcast Episode 66: Leander Moons on Mass Timber Construction in Africa

Discover how Africa's embrace of sustainable infrastructure, led by innovators like Leander Moons of Studio OMT Architects, is shaping a greener future. In this episode, we delve into the rising trend of mass timber construction, its potential impact on global sustainability, and the collaborative efforts with local communities. From Fumba Town Zanzibar to Africa's tallest timber tower, explore the promising projects and discussions driving eco-conscious development. Tune in for an inspiring dialogue on Africa's role in influencing green choices worldwide.


Show Notes:

Imagine Africa built their infrastructure using the same systems as the Western World. Embracing sustainability is a critical element of building a greener future for Africa and the world. Leander Moons is the Founding Owner of Studio OMT Architects, a mass timber architecture and urban design firm working in Africa and Europe. During this episode, he joins us to chat about building in Africa in collaboration with local communities. We discuss the rising industry of mass timber and its potential impact on the future of construction. We explore the opportunities and sustainability considerations for scaling timber construction in Africa, and the various projects in development by Leander’s firm in Fumba Town Zanzibar; including Africa’s tallest timber tower. Join us for an insightful conversation filled with hope for the impact of green choices in Africa on the world beyond its borders. Thank you for listening.

Key Points From This Episode:

  • Background on Leander Moons, Founding Owner of Studio OMT Architects.
  • What mass timber is and where it is predominantly used.
  • Considerations for combining modern materials with traditional methods.
  • Barriers to developing a more robust local timber production industry.
  • Sustainable practices in Tanzania and capitalizing on the lifecycle of a tree.
  • Restoring forest life in the plantations and forests that have been lost due to monoculture.
  • Research into the new products of engineered and mass timber.
  • Tree engineering, breeding, and designing and associated challenges.
  • How Leander came to work in this industry in Africa.
  • Promoting sustainability and local investment through landmark projects.
  • The cost curve of timber as a raw material.
  • A projected timeline of adoption for timber on a larger scale.
  • How financing creates a blockage.
  • Projects in planning including the CheiChei housing project.
  • The importance of building sustainably in Africa and interacting meaningfully with the local communities.



“[Mass] timber is a very new product. There is a world still to research on this.” — Leander Moons [0:12:58]

“I think we will see in the years and decades to come that there will be a big push forward in the research for timber and other bio-based materials.” — Leander Moons [0:14:08]

“We don’t want to cut all our forests away. The solution is always in the hybrid approach where we use local building materials together with bio-based materials.” — Leander Moons [0:15:28]

“The way Africa is reflected in media is not really the reality I would say on the ground.” — Leander Moons [0:16:35]

“When we build in Africa, we have to do it in a sustainable way. We have to do it by interacting with the local communities. Only like that, we can create a good future for Africa but also for the rest of the world.” — Leander Moons [0:26:43]

Links Mentioned in Today’s Episode:

Leander Moons on LinkedIn

Studio OMT Architects

Charter Cities Institute

Charter Cities Institute on Facebook

Charter Cities Institute on X

Charter Cities Institute on Instagram



[00:00:06] KL: Welcome to the Charter Cities podcast. I’m Kurtis Lockhart. On each episode, we invite a leading expert to discuss key trends in global development and the world of cities, including the role charter cities and innovative governance will play in humanity’s new urban age. For more information, please follow us on social media or visit 

[00:00:28] JM: I’m Jeffrey Mason, Head of Research at the Charter Cities Institute. Joining me in the podcast today is Leander Moons, founding partner of Studio OMT Architects, a mass timber architecture and urban design firm working in Africa and in Europe. We chat about mass timber construction, the opportunities, and sustainability considerations for scaling timber construction in Africa and the various projects in development by Leander’s firm in Fumba Town Zanzibar, including Africa’s tallest timber tower. Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. 


[00:01:01] JM: Hi, Leander. Thanks for coming on the podcast.

[00:01:03] LM: Hi. Nice to see you here again, Jeff. It’s nice to be here.

[00:01:06] JM: Yes. If you’re listening and you were attending our summit in Kigali back in November, you’ll recall that Leander was one of our excellent panelists there. It’s good to have him back with CCI. 

The main topic of our conversation today is mass timber construction. Sometimes you’ll see this referred to as cross-laminated timber and stories about it. And that’s what Leander and his firm works on is mass timber construction projects. Let’s off for folks who maybe don’t know. What is mass timber? What are its advantages and disadvantages over conventional building materials? And how widely adopted is it? Where is it being used and so on? 

[00:01:47] LM: Yeah. Mass timber is a relatively new material. It has been invented only two decades ago. Of course, we know a lot about timber. It’s all these building materials we work with. But mass timber is significantly different than regular timber we build with. Gluing to – cross-laminating the timber, we can make spans just like a concrete slab can do, which we previously could not with timber. We could only build columns and beam structures. And those were – when you look at resources required for those structures, not very effective in terms of the resources and then, ultimately, also in terms of cost. 

With mass timber, we can make a stride forward. We see that there’s a lot of mass timber buildings and projects coming up in North America and Europe. But there is hardly any so far in Africa. And, therefore, we are not only looking into mass timber. We are trying to combine mass timber where the performance is optimized. But together with local practices of traditional timber as well. And it’s really to build up a local industry and also to keep the buildings affordable.

[00:02:56] JM: What is that process of combining the sort of modern materials, modern methods with traditional materials, traditional methods, and styles in Africa? What is that coming together look like? 

[00:03:08] LM: When we started, we actually thought we can do a lot more with mass timber. And then when we started that, it actually works. You can import all of that here and assemble it here. But the big downside from that is that we are not building up a local industry. Especially when we think about city growth in Africa, wealth creation here locally, we also have to think about how can we set up the building system so that they enhance the local communities in terms of craftsmanship and wealth generation. 

And that’s why we started to look more into local practices. We see that there is a lot of knowledge in various fields where timber is used. For example, in Zanzibar, that is the boating industry. It’s a great example I think for us in the construction industry where these boats are built out of nine different species of timber all chosen to really perform what they do in the boat. The floaters is softwood. The main part of the boat is a mango tree. Because it’s robust and thick. And that knowledge is there. But it’s not there in construction. 

What we experienced over the last 10 years since we started constructing with wood in the East African context is that building up the craftsmanship is key. And timber is a great material because it’s relatively simple to use on-site. The craftsmanship can easily be taught even when there is no school where they can learn to be a carpenter. We actually hired fishermen at the beginning and they are now very skilled carpenters in high demand by local companies. And they’re building their own houses as well. 

Looking into what kind of craftsmanship we have, what kind of wood we have, that was a whole different track. When we had the craftsmanship, we actually found out that we have no construction wood in Tanzania. Because there is no demand for that kind of wood. None of the sawmills was actually grading their wood. And you can only use graded wood for construction because you need to know that it’s strong enough to withstand like whatever forces come on the building. That was another thing we needed to look into. 

Even though we’re architects, we basically were looking at the whole value chain. From craftsman, to like the sawmill, to the wood species we were using, and to the whole process related to that. And then when we had kind of understanding what we could do with the local craftsmanship and the local material, we redesigned all the buildings again from scratch. Making use of those dimensions, that craftsmanship, and trying to replace as much as we could the imported material by local material.

[00:05:44] JM: Based on your experience, what are some of the main blockers to developing that more robust local timber production industry on a large scale? Is it regulatory? Is it just know-how? What are those barriers? 

[00:05:59] LM: I think the biggest barrier is the economical barrier. As long as there is no demand, there is not really an interest to start producing for construction.

[00:06:08] JM: Most people, if they want to build, they think steel and concrete. 

[00:06:11] LM: They think steel and concrete. And if they use timber, then they just oversize it. They use air-dried and not kiln-dried material. And they oversize it. Because there’s plenty of the wood. And that is the interesting thing. If you look at the wood price in East Africa, it’s around a third per cubic meter as what it is in the rest of the world. And this is because, in Africa, unfortunately, still wood is mainly used as firewood. That’s of course different than the rest of the world. There is, in the local communities, no value related to trees. 

And if we can show that with the same amount of tree, that same cubic meter of wood, we can get three times the value out of that, that is automatic gain without the community having to do anything for that. They just get three times as much for their wood. But we need that industry to build up, to tap into that potential value, which is in the raw product. Currently, we’re seeing that [inaudible 00:07:07] are driven into the paper mill. And that’s just a waste of great construction material. And it’s also like a value which could otherwise go into the community. 

[00:07:18] JM: Now let’s say in somewhere like Tanzania, a more robust timber production industry starts to be built up. Tanzania is one of the most forested. If I remember correctly, one of the most forest countries in Africa. What does this look like in terms of sustainability? It’s great if we can get this materials industry going. It also leaves the question of how do you maintain the supply of trees, and tree cover, and environment, and all that? 

[00:07:46] LM: Tanzania indeed has 52% almost coverage of forest of the whole country. It’s very Forest-rich. Now forest is not necessarily forest. Primary forest we should not touch. That is clear. But Tanzania, due to its colonial history, has also enormous plantation areas. 

When you go to the southern highlands, you can drive for hours and it’s just plantation after plantation. Now, of course, if we think about sustainability, certification of those plantations is key so that like the wood is sourced in a sustainable manner. Because, otherwise, of course wood is only sustainable when it’s regrown and replanted. But the big benefit is that a tree is just like a kid. When they’re growing, they eat a lot of carbon. Our kids eat a lot of food. And they can just keep eating. I mean, I cannot do that. When I eat, I grow fat. The tree is the same. 

At the beginning, 30 years, it grows fast. It sequesters a lot of carbon. And then that curve flattens off. It’s actually not all too bad to cut down that tree. Use it, for example, construction. As long as we replant enough trees to replace that tree we’re taking down. 

[00:08:55] JM: In terms of those kind of efforts, is that something that you see sort of sawmills producers are actively doing? Is that something that’s cost-effective for them? Or is that still kind to be worked out? 

[00:09:05] LM: Yeah, I think currently there is a lot of interest in the African forest. We’ve seen the Middle East, they’re buying forests to offset their carbon production. This, of course, is a bit of an issue when we think about construction material for the future. Because if that forest is bought to offset that carbon, we basically cannot use it anymore. That we definitely see happening. 

We see a lot of global big players in the market who are interested in certification because then they can sell parts of their forest or park that has a carbon credit revenue. There’s definitely interest in certification but not always for the right reasons. We also know that certification – for example, if we look at FSC in the US, for example, there’s hardly any forest which is certified. And that’s just because, in the US, there is enough regrowth and enough replanting of the trees even without certification. 

The same we see also in Tanzania. For example, a lot of the government plantations they would easily meet FSC criteria. But there is no need for the government to certify it. That, of course, is then for us always a bit of a question. When we think about timber and using the timber, do we limit ourselves only to the actual certified sawmills? Or do we also now use that wood, which comes from plantation which we know would qualify for that but currently don’t have that certification. And this is, of course, especially, because we’re all the way in the beginning of a timber industry, a delicate matter to work with. 

What we of course trying to do is to show municipalities, communities, authorities, and private sawmills the benefit of having certification. But, yeah, we are only architects. We not always are the right party to push for that. But with our partners, we are definitely seeing that there is more interest in that market to get certification. To think about the sustainability. To start collaborating also with other parts of the world. To also think about how can we manage our forest in a more sustainable way. Because that, of course, is the downside when we talk about primary forest and plantation forests. 

A plantation forest is largely a dead area. I mean, there’s hardly any animals. You fly over it. You think this is fantastic. It’s all green. But when you’re down there, it’s a monoculture. And this is something we also have to deal with, of course, on the long term is how can we get the forest life back into that plantation woods as well? And we think that through the value creation of using that wood, we can also enhance that thinking process of getting back to more lively forest. 

[00:11:44] JM: That’s really interesting. I didn’t even think about this point about monoculture. Aght a lay person in this industry, whatever, like me, you think, “Okay, forest is forest.” But, yeah, that’s actually a very interesting distinction. 

I’m curious, where in the world you say is currently leading in terms of mass timber? Either production or practices? Where are the best learnings to be had? 

[00:12:03] LM: Of course, it was invented in Europe. The timber industry, especially in the German-speaking countries like Switzerland, Austria, they are famous also for their timber architecture. I think most of the leading companies are located in Europe. We’ve also seen that a lot of the US players have been actually acquired by European counterparts. And what is really standing out in Europe I think is the efficiency of the production. 

If we look into a European engineer timber manufacturing plant, they use up to 95% of the tree. As were in the US, a couple of years back, that percentage was around like 60, 65. And that’s of course where we all can learn from. The more efficient we can use the material, the better. 

I mean here in Africa, I don’t even want to know what that percentage is. That’s currently probably not very high. But I think this is the key thing. Then when we – of course, know mass timber engineer, timber is a very new product. There is a world still to research on this. And this is happening throughout the whole world. There’s a lot of research in North America, also Australia, especially when it comes to, for example, eucalyptus and other hardwood species we are often rather talking to our Australian counterparts than other parts of the world. Because those trees we don’t see in the north as much. 

But also here on the continent, Victoria, is just setting up a more enhanced timber research facility. it’s coming everywhere. but we should not forget that timber coming from Europe. When you look at the species, it’s very limited. There is less than 100 tree species in Europe. The research is done on those species. 

Now, for example, Tanzania, we have more than 500 species in one country alone. And 100 of those have been documented. There is still a world to gain when we look into the research. Also, when we start to look into a more hybrid solution for timber with any other material, how would that work? We work a lot with composite floors. But that is a very low-tech kind of hybrid solution, I would say. I think we will see in the years and decades to come that there will be a big push forward in the research for timber and other bio-based materials. 

[00:14:19] JM: Speaking of research on this topic, I’m curious how plugged in you are or what you could speak to about the tree engineering side of things about breeding and designing better, more productive trees. Can you speak to the state of that world at all? 

[00:14:35] LM: Well, that gets very technical. I sometimes try to understand what they’re talking about. But the big takeaway there is that process is a really lengthy one. Because before that tree grows and that is then the constellation of how the trees are put together. How they are bred like different species or the different subspecies? You can only see after 30 years. And 30 years is already fast because we don’t have winter here. In Europe or North America, that would take 60 to 70 years. 

The actual research on the tree itself is a very difficult one to loop into the current challenges we have when we think about Africa and its demographic grow and just a sheer amount of dwellings we have to produce in the short time. We cannot wait until there is more outcome on which trees grow better. We have to deal with the wood we have now. And this is of course also a challenge. I mean, we don’t want to cut all our forests away. The solution is always in the hybrid approach where we use local building materials together with bio-based materials where timber is just one of those.

[00:15:41] JM: Now, can you tell the story of how did you come to be working on this projects in Africa? What’s your story? 

[00:15:48] LM: I have been fortunate enough that my wife has an interesting job for the UN. And because of that, we kind of traveled through the world. And I never thought that I would end up here in Africa. But we did. And me and my family, we really like it here. But also, we feel that we really can contribute to the future generations to problems we have with our climate with the demographics in Africa here more than anywhere else. 

We have lived in other parts of the world. I’ve worked for big firms around the world. And I’ve always tried to interest them to start a practice here in Africa based on my previous experiences. I lived here before and now came back. But none of them was really interested in that. Because Africa, for many people, is still far away. The way Africa is reflected in media is not really the reality I would say on the ground. People are not really open I think to work in Africa. And that made me basically set up my own office. 

And I worked for a local office and like a developer we worked with who was interested in timber. They’re also a local office. Do you want to design a building with timber for us? And they said no. And that’s how they came back to. With my love for Africa and with my interest in sustainable architecture, that kind of led to, “Okay, there is just one way to do this.” And this is when I just started myself.

[00:17:10] JM: It’s a really great story. Let’s now talk about some of your projects. I think one of the most fascinating efforts in the portfolio is the Burj Zanzibar, which is part of the Fumba Town development that CCI are working with over there in Zanzibar. Tell us about this timber tower that you’re building. 

[00:17:28] LM: The timber tower is a particular story. Of course, we started 10 years back with small buildings. And we’ve seen it works. And people who bought them, who started to live in them, they were surprised. Especially in the tropical context we have here, a lot of people were questioning, “Is this the right approach?” 

At the same time, we’ve seen that although we were building all these buildings, there was hardly any interest in what we were doing, let alone any media coverage or further knowledge throughout the world. Together with the developer, we had been thinking about how can we promote this more sustainable approach on construction, on timber technologies, and on using those new technologies in the place where we actually need to build? When we look at other parts of the world, we don’t have the population grow we have here. 

The tower was really meant to be a landmark project for what we can do with the material. And a lot of people, they always come to me and they say, “You are in Africa. Why are you not building affordable houses with this material?” And then I tell them, “If we have a little bit of money, would you invest in something which you would consider a risk? Or would you look at your neighbor who has more money and see where they invest in?” And this is a bit also the approach which I think is key to make wood work in the region here. 

We have to think about getting people with money interested in showcasing that they are willing to invest in these projects. Because, of course, the Burj Zanzibar is also an upscale project. This is not for the local population as you will. But we see that because local people see foreigners are coming here, they are investing in this landmark project, they are also investing in the smaller projects. And this is what we need. We need in the end to come to a solution where the local population sees timber as a good alternative for conventional materials. And we can only arrive at that when we create landmark projects. And that also has shown the Burj over the past few months that we have been developing this that it has been on the market is that there is a big buzz around it. But the buzz is really trickling down to the other projects where we see more local interest where we also now have the first affordable housing project on the ground being assembled. And local people buying those apartments because they see people from abroad, from America, from Asia, they are buying in the Burj. This must be a great thing to invest in.

[00:19:52] JM: In terms of timber as the building material, what does that cost curve look like in terms of being able to push the price point down so that it’s affordable? 

[00:20:02] LM: We, of course, in Zanzibar are in a lucky situation. Because every building material needs to be imported onto the island. It’s a lot easier to build with Timber, which also still largely is an imported material even when it comes from the mainlands because of like the Zanzibar setting within the Republic of Tanzania. It still counts as an imported material. But because of that isolated location, it’s a lot easier to get competitive in price. 

Of course, also with our office here in Nairobi, and we see that it’s a lot harder to get Timber to a competitive price level when you compare it with conventional construction means. And that is again because the lack of demand. There is a very limited industry only. If you get the material, then the biggest problem is actually getting a contractor, which is not around. And, of course, then any contractor which has no experience in this field who would take up the job would overprice it so that they can do what they know, which is conventional. 

This is the kind of loop we are caught in where we need specific developers who not only look at the return of investment but also at the sustainable portion of this. Of course, we’re working, for example, now together with EDGE Certification where, of course, we see that there’s more and more financial institutions who are only investing in green buildings. And then of course, timber becomes interesting again. Yeah, we have to do a lot of groundwork still to make this compatible in price in relation to conventional construction. The stage which I think in North America and Europe we already reached. But here, we’re still far away from that point. 

[00:21:42] JM: And based on the current state of play, what do you see is sort of the current timeline of adoption for timber on sort of a larger scale.

[00:21:48] LM: I mean, if we look at Zanzibar, when we started 10 years ago, we were producing maybe a couple of houses a month if we had a good month. Now we’re rather talking about like hundreds of houses a month. We can scale this up. That’s also the great benefit from Timber. You can pre-manufacture a lot. So you can assemble a lot faster. 

Where we currently see like the weakest point in this chain is the financing methods. We are forced to artificially slow down a lot of our projects because, unfortunately, we still have a lot of off-plant still. There is no bigger financing partners willing to pre-finance projects to a reasonable interest rate. And, therefore, yeah, we are at the stop-and-go. We do a foundation and then we stop for 3 months. Then we put up the super-structure in timber in a month and then we stop for four months. And then we do the fill-out. That is still unfortunate if we can improve the financing situation, we can also deliver a lot faster. 

And we need to think about that because we have a lot of houses to build. I’ve just seen numbers that, for example, the Tanzanian population will double in 20 years. Imagine what we have to build in 20 years. If we do it in the way we are currently doing it, then of course a lot of these people are not having a house when they’re born. And that’s not something we should want as a planet.

[00:23:14] JM: Before we wrap up, what projects – obviously, there’s the Burj, the flagship, what other projects that you’re either actively working on or have in planning are you most excited about that you’re able to share? 

[00:23:26] LM: At the moment, we are very excited about our CheiChei Project. This is like the equitable housing project where we managed to realize even with imported wood studio on the market for 10,000 USD. A bit more expensive currently. And we have seen that that project not only appeal to foreigners but also local people who bought their apartments in that project. 

And the nice thing about this project is that it also went beyond only thinking about residential. I think, especially, in the African context, the community is always of great importance. The extended family, how these family ties are formed? How neighbors are helping each other with child care when the other goes to work. 

We also integrated within the project like semi-public spaces to enhance that community feeling. Really also looking at like how the local construct of the communities looks like and how we can embed that in our project. And also, thinking about like this is not only residential but also including like little shops, [inaudible 00:24:27], where people can actually do their work while they live next door. 

And that was a bit of a gamble at the beginning. We didn’t know how those would go. And funny enough, they would sell out first. We all thought we can easily revert them back into residential. But we never needed to. And we rather had to add more of these little workshop spaces because they were in such high demand. And I think those are the interesting things. You can think about everything and research everything. But the market always proves you wrong in one way or the other. 

But the nice thing about this project is really that, for the first time, we’re seeing really this local participation in that. And, therefore, I’m really looking forward to now the first building just started assembly on the side. It should be completed later this year. And I can’t wait for the first people to move in there.

[00:25:16] JM: That’s fascinating. I think it also is a nice example of how better methods and better planning practices and the kind of things that you’re working on can introduce density that generates benefits for the public as opposed to the current sort of the way Africa builds. It’s dense. But that’s mostly through crowding. It’s very sprawling. And there’s lots of disamenities associated with that. But I think this is interesting because I believe that CheiChei that you’re building there, three stories, four stories? 

[00:25:47] LM: There are four stories. And as you said, I mean, when we were thinking about this project we were thinking can we give some kind of living quality back? This is the courtyard. We also don’t want to build infrastructure. We want to build living quality. And the more we can form that community with a certain quality, with greenery, also with stormwater, which is a big issue in many of these overcrowded areas, the better we can design around that and give those people like a good place to live. I think also the higher the quality of their life will become. 

[00:26:18] JM: I think your work is really great. It’s interesting. And as CCI continues to work with our partners on the expansion of Fumba Town, I can’t wait to see all these really great projects spring up from the ground and really start to help catalyze the growth of this industry for the broader market.

[00:26:35] LM: Yeah. And then, of course, we, also together with CCI, I mean it’s a great partner to work with. And I think we are looking in the same direction. When we build in Africa, we have to do it in a sustainable way. We have to do it by interacting with the local communities. Only like that we can create a good future for Africa but also for the rest of the world. I mean, imagine when Africa builds everything like we did in conventional structure, what that would mean to our climate? Just because of that, we have to support Africa in a greener future for all of us.

[00:27:08] JM: Absolutely. We’ll include a link to this in the show notes. I encourage everyone to check out Leander’s firm, OMT Architects’ website. Look through their work. It’s beautiful. They’re visually striking. And also, the design is great. It’s innovative. Take some time, check out their projects. Thanks for joining me today,q Leander.

[00:27:24] LM: Great. Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure. 


[00:27:29] KL: Thanks so much for listening. We love engaging with our listeners. Please always feel free to reach out. Contact information is listed in the show notes. To find out more about the work of the Charter Cities Institute, please follow us on social media or visit


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