World of Concrete – Changing Concrete for the Poor

2013 World of Concrete suggests curing worlds poorest concrete

The story of death by a 1000 shovels was presented to the members of the World of Concrete and many pledged to find a solution to this problem in the poorest regions of the planet.

Fixing broken concrete supply chains

The shovels represent a broken concrete supply chain in the under-developed nations and until this is fixed there will continue to be death and destruction from natural disasters.

death by a 1000 shovelsBruce Christensen, a director with Cement Trust shared a slide presentation at the Las Vegas event to bring this sad issue to the forefront. The attendees at the World of Concrete are uniquely qualified to help cure the world’s poorest concrete. Click on the box to the right for the slides from the presentation.

Script from the presentation:

Before I start to blame shovels for thousands of deaths, let’s discuss the good-side of shovels. We have all had some great memories with shovels in the past.Like the time we used a shovel to build a sand castle on the beach. Or maybe this shovel reminds us of the time we dug for buried treasure. Or our memories may include time spent using a shovel to toil over a project to better your community.

Indeed, shovels do many great things in the hands of those who use them for their intended purpose. Shovels do spread good will and create many good times for many people.But shovels can also be dangerous as well….

Shovels can contribute to the death and destruction of thousands of people. Now let me introduce you to the shovels of death – Today you will learn of a deadly use for shovels and the tragedy that these shovels represent. We will discover that the poorest people of the world kill themselves with their own shovels. And that many well-meaning people share in the work of these shovels of death. It is a tragic story that the members of the world of concrete can help to change, and it is why Cement Trust exists.

Blaming Shovels…

Just 3-years ago on January 12th 2010 the earth shook for 30 seconds and Haiti’s buildings crumbled down upon the Haitian people. Many lost their lives and their homes because of shovels. Yes, shovels caused this much destruction.

The streets of Port au Prince were filled with rubble piles, and these piles included the crumbling slabs of broken concrete or chunks of building blocks that were once where the walls, floors and roofs of Haitian homes and businesses. And it is the shovels fault, so blame we the shovels.

Even today, after 3-years, the people live in desperate conditions. The disease and sorrow continues.  Storms blow-in to destroy tents and temporary structures, and the answer in most cases has been to send in more shovels…

Disaster engineers continue to warn that “earthquakes don’t kill people, building do”. And the images from Haiti and from other earthquakes in poor nations sadly testify that concrete building do indeed create orphans, widows and broken dreams. Now I ask you who should we blame?  It wouldn’t be fair to blame the people, so Blame the Shovels.

But why blame a simple garden tool for such terrible deeds? Why denigrate the shovels that you and I have had so many great adventures with.  Don’t shovels do so many great things for the good, why make them out to be such a bad guy?

We blame shovels because a shovel in the wrong hands can be deadly, and shovels are a very recognizable symbol of a broken concrete supply system within the poorest nations.

In poor countries the shovel is the cement mixer of choice. They mix their concrete on the ground using shovels to create their foundations – They use shovels on the ground to create concrete block – Their shovels, mixing on the ground produce the mortar, the plaster and the stucco. And with every step, they build heavy structures that eventually fall down upon them.  Sadly they don’t have ready-mix trucks, mortar mixers, concrete pumps and tools like we do.  They don’t have trustworthy suppliers, they must rely on shovels and the ground to build their homes.

Strong backs…

The poor do have strong backs, and with their strength and thousands of shovels they to move the material to mix in the water and cement powder to create their low-strength mixes. Their strong backs and their great poverty create a cycle of despair and tragedy that does not need to exist.

As the shovels mix the concrete, the buckets feed in water and then scoop the wet mix up for the bucket brigade to move off to the forms. This is what you do when poverty forces the shovel to be your concrete mixer, and the bucket to become the concrete pump.

These shovels and buckets are central players and contributors to a poor construction supply system that needs an intervention. An intervention that concrete experts like us need to participate in.

Cement volume

Poverty causes people who mix on the ground to skimp on cement. It is hard to blame them when a bag of cement equals more than a days pay, or when thievery is the only course to obtain even a minimal measurement of cement. Adding to this challenge are the issues of inconsistent supplies, corruption and quality control problems at the cement bagging operations.

Without the correct proportions of cement there is not enough strength in the concrete to withstand even a moderate earthquake or other disaster.


Buckets carry the water for the shovels to mix, and this creates other problems.  When mixing by hand it is much easier to move the shovels when the materials are wet and soupy.  Therefore, the ground mixing crews add extra water to easy the strain on their backs. But extra water creates a weaker concrete as it cures. Even though wetter mixes are easier to scoop and move into the forms, it does little to create a better structure – the extra water does in fact produce a weaker more vulnerable home.


At the beginning of any good concrete supply chain are the aggregates that become the bulk of any concrete mixture. The bad concrete materials join the shovels in producing bad concrete. These poor quality materials would never pass muster in our more-developed nations, yet few even worry about the raw materials as the shovels continue to mix on the ground.

The combination of poverty, poor aggregate, too much water, to little cement, buckets and shovels results in the rubble piles and the problems that the we, as the members of the World of Concrete are uniquely qualified to address.

Low strength concrete

Following Haiti’s quake, engineering professor Kimberly Kurtis went with a team to Haiti to study the practice of mixing concrete on the ground with shovels. Georgia Tech’s multiple tests found compressive strengths average 1300 but as low as 770 psi – Well below the 3000 psi that we call a norm in our working concrete supply systems. Many other studies have reinforced the reality that poverty produces poor concrete, but few have focused on curing this worldwide problem.  This is the goal of Cement Trust.

To find a cure to poor concrete we must ask why is it that one country can survive a massive quake while others have so many deaths?

At 7.0 quake in Haiti killed over 200,000 and injured that many more and produced massive homelessness and rubble piles. In Haiti the shovels are a part of a broken supply chain that produced enough concrete rubble to fill a train of box cars from here to Atlanta.  This represents a huge waste of the world’s resources. But in Chile, when the 6th largest quake in history hit in 2010 it resulted in only 525 deaths. Even though the ground shook at more than 510 times the amount of Haiti there was minimal rubble, structural damage and homelessness.  The only logical explanation is that Chile benefits from a working supply chain for their concrete construction processes. A functioning system saves both human and financial resources for other things besides rebuilding.

The continuing problem…

The problem that we face is that little by little the shovels have built the homes and buildings of the poorest nations of the world.  And, today many charitable organizations justify this shovel mixing method because it is easier than finding a reasonable solution to a poor supply system. These organizations are not experts in concrete production, yet they are often tasked with the responsibility to rebuild without much support from the international concrete industry.

We all recognize that these NGO’s and charities have the best interest of those who are suffering at heart, yet they don’t realize that it is the shovels and the broken supply systems that really need the attention. Their expertise is in rescuing, not proper reconstruction so they organize service teams that swarm-in to join the rebuilding effort. Unfortunately they find themselves using the broken concrete supply chains and more shovels to build within this failed process.

Time and time again they come with their shovels and buckets to rescue and rebuild. Over and over the process adds to a building system that perpetually crumbles.  All the well-meaning volunteers return home with great stories of how the they picked up the shovel and mixed with the locals to build a church or a school. And despite their good intention there is no real change in the quality of the concrete.  Time and time again, there is a call for donations to join in the cause of rebuilding following a disaster.

The same results…

Despite the apparent problem the end result remains the same… Something must change in the supply chain of these nations or all of these shovels will continue to produce more rubble piles, more sorrow and more desperation. Over and over again bad concrete gets the blame for this death and loss. As concrete experts don’t we have a responsibility to respond to the bad reputation that this is giving to our industry?

A call to action…

Cement Trust calls upon the international concrete community to join in changing the direction of this cycle of death. Concrete experts can remove the shovel from the hands of the poor and replace it with appropriate technology and tools. We call upon international charities, governments and non-government organization to realize that this problem can be solved with the help of concrete experts.

As concrete geeks, we don’t know much about ending polo or stopping the spread of measles. Our expertise is not found in drilling water wells or the distribution food to the hungry.  But we can cure the world’s poorest concrete, if we focus our attention on this problem. As a group we are uniquely qualified to change the quality of the concrete supply systems of the poorest people. Cement Trust says “The time has come to share our innovation and expertise with the poor”. It is time to begin the process of curing the world’s poorest concrete supply systems.

4 steps toward a cure…

The cure to bad concrete can be accomplished in 4 steps:

1.Inform charities that the problem exists and teach them of their roll in the cure

2.Help concrete experts to find ways to develop tools that will fit the need

3.Train charities to recognize and use good construction supply practices

4.Assist these groups in promoting the growth of local concrete supply chains.

Since 2010 Cement Trust has been developing an information campaign around this issue. Over time there have been hundreds of pages of discussion on this subject cataloged on this website sponsored by Cart-Away Concrete System. The information outreach has extended to include information from universities, international aid groups and other thought leaders within this industry. We invite other concrete expert to contribute to the conversation.

Following the Haiti quake a team from Cart-Away Concrete System took on the challenge to replace the shovels with an appropriately scaled concrete mixer. This mixer is specifically designed for producing consistent concrete ready-mix, even in an area racked with extreme poverty. The Concrete MD is a mechanical mixer built to eliminate shovel mixing on the ground and to get the same recipe time and time again.  We like to think of the MD as the poor mans concrete batch plant and an equivalent to our local transit-mix supplier here in the States.

This machine represents Cement Trust’s goal to involve manufacturing in finding solutions to this problem. There are many equipment manufacturers who could also innovate and produce solutions for the broken concrete supply chains of poor nations. We believe there are many opportunities in serving the billions at the bottom of the economic pyramid.

Curing poverty requires raising the economic fortunes of the poor. We know that the concrete supply chain offers many growth opportunities as it develops. The World of Concrete represent a massive concrete supply chain that works very well.

Encouraging charities, governments and other organizations to join with construction supply experts in this effort will open many opportunities for the poor to participate. From improvements in aggregate processing, expanded engineering, material testing, distribution and concrete production –  a growing supply chain can provide higher wages and more economic growth in every community that it touches.

We have seen forward-looking charities encourage US church congregations to fund business opportunities for their cousin-congregation in countries like Haiti. The wealthier congregation funds the purchase of appropriately scaled equipment and then supports a Haitian congregation as it joins an improving concrete supply system within their community.

Cement Trust welcomes these creative ideas and wants to see more interaction between concrete experts and charitable groups.  It is only through these partnerships that we will see a reduction of the cycle of destruction that the shovels represent.

Do something now…

It is my hope that we will take a few minutes to think about the people that will spend today and tomorrow building a home with a shovel, too much water, too little cement and a bucket. Make a commitment to do something to change this and join with Cement Trust in curing the World’s Poorest Concrete…

We ask you and others to help us end death by a thousand shovels… It is time to begin the work to retire the shovels.


About cementtrust

I am a director with Cement Trust and passionate about improving cement-based production in the poorest nations of the world.
This entry was posted in Concrete Supply Chain and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s