Architect, Francis Kéré, attends a ceremony that was held by traditional leaders to honour him, after he won Pritzker Prize in his native village Gando, Burkina Faso June 4, 2022. Picture taken June 4, 2022. REUTERS/Anne Mimault Image: REUTERS/Anne Mimault
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- Subscribe to Meet the Leader on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.
- Meet the Leader is the podcast from the World Economic Forum that features the world’s top changemakers, showcasing the habits and traits effective leaders can’t work without.
- Diébédo Francis Kéré made history earlier this year as the first African and first Africa person to win Architecture’s top honour: the Pritzker Prize.
- On Meet The Leader he discussed the ways his architecture can reshape communities and opportunity - and the surprising lessons those experiences taught him about resilience and making change happen.
Today, Diébédo Francis Kéré is an influential architect with a studio in Berlin. But before he was a sustainable design pioneer or the first-ever African person to win the prestigious Pritzker Prize, he was just a boy from Gando.
Gando is a village in Burkina Faso, with just 2,000 people. As he was growing up, there was no clean drinking water, no electricity and no schools. When Kéré's father sent him to a neighbouring village for primary education, some called his father 'stupid', questioning why a young person with education would ever return to Gando.
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Kéré went on to study carpentry and language and eventually architecture in Berlin. He did return to Gando, however, committed to take what he'd learned to improve lives and create opportunity. In fact, he was so eager to give back to Gando that he built his first project - a school - in 2001, three years before graduating from Berlin's Technical University with his architecture degree.
His designs use local materials and traditional techniques to create projects that are comfortable, affordable and sustainable. That first school in Gando prioritized light and ventilation, as Kéré knew first-hand how important comfort is in learning. That building used clay - an ample local material - formed into bricks in an approach that eliminated the need for air conditioning, reducing the building's potential ecological footprint.
Building that first school was transformative - for both the people of Gando and for him. Such a school is key to readying a new generation of young people for new jobs and opportunities. Such a project - with its share of unexpected challenges - gave him the strength and resilience he'd need to pioneer other design innovations.
He's since founded his own firm, as well as the Kéré Foundation, a nonprofit organization that designs public infrastructure for Gando. Projects capture rainwater into reservoirs for dry seasons and improve sanitation systems by collecting organic waste for fertilizer.
In an interview with the World Economic Forum's Gayle Markovitz, Kéré described his experience building that first school, the rejection he faced and what he's learned. He also said how he's grown as a leader and architect, how architecture can transform communities, and what he hopes others will learn from his example. A transcript is below.
This transcript has been generated using speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check its accuracy against the audio.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: Tell us about your background.
Diébédo Francis Kéré: I was born and grew up in a little village in Burkina Faso, named Gando. I think it was about 2,000 people in this village. I was living in a community where the survival of the entire community is depending on the support of every single member.
In this village, there was no clean drinking water. So, I mean, like, you really needed to go far to get the water. There was no electricity and also no schools.
My father was part of the traditional leading structure and then he will sometimes get letter from the central government on programmes or from family relatives living outside the village, for example, in the Ivory Coast, outside the country.
I was living in a community where the survival of the entire community is depending on the support of every single member.”
And they will send him letters and he would have to wait, sometimes during the rainy season it may be four months, before came from outside that could read the letters for him. And sometimes you have some intimacy, if a relative writes to you don't want everyone to know about it. And so that is the reason why he wanted his first born, it was me, to learn how to read and write. And that is the reason why he sent me to school.
And for the village it was indeed a sacrifice, a big sacrifice. Other community members in the village called him stupid. Why he's sending his kids so far, he may not come back to work on the field. Why he's sending him away? He's so stupid.
I can tell you today, I think that it's clear, my father was a visionary personality.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: Your African name. Can you just tell us what it means?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: My African name is actually Guémbédo, but it's written Diébédo, which is wrongly translated. But the positive thing with my name is not everyone has this name. In my tradition, people really look to the stars.
They will look. And then, then they will decide to give you a name according to the constellation of the sky. And then I got this name, which means that I am the one that will really succeed. That basically says the man that will overcome bad times, and all these negative things, and bring wealth to the village.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: Tell us about the first project that you did after becoming an architect.
Diébédo Francis Kéré: Yeah, for me, it was a great chance to get a scholarship to come to Berlin. It was about a training to come to Germany to do a vocational training and to go back to Burkina Faso after two years and become an activist in development sector, in a cooporation work between Germany and many African countries.
The fact that I got it is that the elite will not apply for a scholarship where you go to be trained as a carpenter for a country where you have no wood, you understand. And so already, this I am lucky. I got it and I came to Germany. And so I then decided to do my high school degree, during the night while working during the day, in Germany, to do more. I was saying I am a carpenter. Now I have to know how you layer bricks and how you draw so I will be good enough to build an entire house. I know how to make grooves and furniture. Now I need to know how to make bricks and to draw. And so I did it to be able to study architecture.
I started to travel around Germany, around Berlin, and then to check how people was building in the traditional way. In the pre-industrial age in Germany. I was interested in the old techniques, so I can go back to Burkina Faso and combine them with the existing traditional knowledge of my country and build a house.
So, I didn't wait to become an architect to go back and start to build. And I built my very first school in 2001 and I graduated in architecture in 2004. I couldn't wait.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: It was a surprise, put it that way that you came back and you built the school in the way that you did. So tell me a little bit about that.
Diébédo Francis Kéré: It was not easy. I'm still, if I'm thinking back I'm still emotionally attached. You can hear it. It was indeed a big challenge and I went back and I could raise a little bit of money and I went back home and I told now people, okay, you asked me to fix at that time, the existing little box that was serving as a school and was falling apart. I have a little bit of money, but we're going to build a new one.
And everyone was like really excited about that idea of getting a new school. And then when it came to material and I told them, we're going to build it out of mud. They were shocked. Totally shocked. Really. So using words like, okay it is these Europeans, especially the Germans, they're building the most greatest cars, they're building the best buildings, and then they don't want us to be developed. And they made a brainwash to Francis that’s why he think like them and just want us to start primitive and not to have something that is modern. That’s why they want us to build out of mud. There was a big rejection, a big, big rejection. But I didn't give up. I kept pushing, explaining, doing more and trying to explain. You start by the oldest.
"There was a big rejection, a big, big rejection. But I didn't give up. I kept pushing, explaining, doing more."”
You know, you start by the oldest, because in these kinds of places you have no record. And those that are older, own the knowledge and the power, the real power. And if you can convince them, then everyone will follow. And that was so great. That was so great that I happened to convince older people - 70 years old, 80 years old. And then we start to build and using clay, but that I have improved by adding a little bit of cement, in French, “blocs de terre comprimée” - BTC. That is another compact earth blocks and I could use it. You know what happened? You building, you start with the rejection, but you start to build and you have the entire village supporting you, really, especially the women, you know? And then the wall rise.
The wall become one meter higher. And you know what happened in the night, a big rain in the memory of the people using clay, you know, using clay, oh my goodness is a catastrophe. The rain will destroy. The rain has destroyed the wall. They haven't seen it. But then now from their experience, a clay wall, one meter high with no roof, no protection will be destroyed by automatically by rain.
You know what happened? They came in the village early in the morning, in the morning to support me in case I cry, you know, that’s what they do to support you. Hey, don't, don't be worried. We're going to make it again. You know?
And then suddenly we heard, I heard a loud voice screaming of happiness. And then my brother came in to say, ‘Ah, you know what happening? The village was thinking, the wall has collapsed. But the wall was standing and that is like a miracle. Your walls are standing and everyone is so happy.’
I mean, if you have this experience, if you have this experience, you see it. Even now I cannot express it without getting emotional. That is like nutrition. For you to do what you have planned, but it was not easy. It was not easy at all.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: Can you describe the school? Because I know the problems you were trying to fix were light and ventilation.
Diébédo Francis Kéré: It was very simple. You know, you live in the place that is poor. That is among the poorest in the world. You have a material. It is clay. It is abundant. People used to use that. So that is one element. I wanted to use that.
And then I had an idea to make it modern. Modernity is important. And it should be comfortable. Comfort is so important. So, I wanted to really use the most available material and come out with the concept that was based on a solid circle or basement solid circle, like base where you put the fragile clay wall and you create a ceiling, a massive ceiling with openings. and you top with a light separated roof that will protect the entire building against rain but also against sun. That was the concept and true, thinking about the Venturi system, you will just extract the hot air because the hot air is always escaping from the top of the building. In the West, if you have someone living underneath you or up of you and you heat your building, you’re heating your room and he's not, your energy is used to heat his room, so you're going to pay his bill.
So, I am using this to extract the hot air from my building and create a feeling of cool comfort inside — passive ventilation. This was the idea that I had and I did it, and that was simple and it's still working. It is standing and the building is so strong. That is coming out with no maintenance.
It is 21 years today. And it is still standing like the same day.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: That idea of combining a contemporary sensibility with traditional building materials, using local materials. Nowadays it seems absolutely sensible and a sustainable way to build.
In many ways you were a real forerunner of that, but can you talk a little bit about sustainability, sustainable architecture and what that means to you?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: So, from me to you and to your audience, you have to know when I started that a time, there was no ideas, no knowledge about using this word sustainability. I mean, it was existing, but for me it was key to look around what is the most available in the given place in this case, it was my village. So, what kind of knowledge exists around it? Okay. And what other resources do we have? So to be able to create the building that will live longer, that will last longer, that will come out with no maintenance.
This is being the reason why people are rejecting clay building need to be repair every year, every season after the rainy season. If you don't come with a proper constructive idea so that’s why people are rejecting it. For me, it was to just improve that material. It was also to think while doing it, so think about how do you transfer all these new ideas that have been applied to build this house. Those are approaches that are part of my DNA. I don't need to use this word, sustainability, eco, whatever. It is, for me, the most important thing that you just do because it is the best way.
This is how people behave in African villages. Despite the growing number of population, don't forget that Africa contribute to less than 5% of the carbon footprint -- really. And for me, it's about thinking how you deal with nature, how you use material and not cause a big burden to other environment that really matters in these places.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: Have you managed to repeat it at a larger scale? Maybe you could tell us a bit about your more recent work and how you've scaled up.
Diébédo Francis Kéré: Scaling up is a big, big issue, and that is not an easy task at all. If you want to build, you really need a lot of resources you mobilize. So, and if you do building in Africa, it takes a long time before it gets known by everybody until then a group of people realize this is the best idea and we want to replicate it.
Indeed, my buildings have been now in the West a long time before they get now in Burkina. I can tell you the technology is spreading now the way to build not the same model, but the way to build using these materials is spreading, like now really fast. The more I work again, and the more visibility which has even helped other architects that really started in West Africa, that I know that came to Gando from Niger to Burkina to learn from this way of making things. And then to Ivory Coast, Togo, Ghana -- now is really fast. So, it hasn't been fast enough because of how heavy the entire system or the construction business is, and then, especially in Africa, but I happen to do a lot of projects in Burkina. Many, many schools, ranging from high schools, a primary school, high schools, and even today to sort of universities in Burkina, but then also to try to apply this way of building in places like Mozambique, like Togo and then in Kenya.
For me, it is still not big enough, because with this way of making that is a potential of creating a business model. It is a way of scaling up, because clay is abundant. You could just supply a workshop where you produce the bricks and they can be transferred.
There is a big potential how this can help really to shape the continent. There is a big, big- with the price now I'm sure more people will see what I'm doing, but I don't just use clay. I'm trying to use, I'm using laterite. This is another construction material that is abundant in Burkina and also some other places in Africa.
Laterite is a sort of compact clay, naturally compact it's coming from erosion. If you dig, you find a layer of it, and then depending on the quality of the soil, you cut blocks out of it. I like this material also because it it contains iron. And then in contact with the air, the oxidation is happening. So the bricks are getting harder — very, very stable. You could build, build great buildings with it.
I use also local wood, whatever I can find. But that is the way I see how we can do architecture that is respectful to nature and to the ecology.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: Africa's got some of the biggest cities in the world, do you think it could be applied at the sort of city sort of scale and applied to infrastructure? What do you think is the future of those cities?
"If Africa starts to consume like the West, it's going to be catastrophic. We have to really consider local material as a contribution to the environment and then to the climate change."”
Diébédo Francis Kéré: We are facing a big, or let's say dramatic, population growth in cities but is not due to only to migration from the rural, you know, it is also due to growth, to birth, you know, population growth is an issue. How do you create space for all of these people? How do you create infrastructure, without causing a big burden to the environment? I mean, we have always to think if Africa starts to consume like the West, it's going to be catastrophic. We will not have enough resources for that. So, we have to really consider those local material as a contribution to the environment, and then to the climate change. Or how we can reduce overconsumption by using available natural materials, and then to try to build the needs for the big cities. You know, except to bridges, but you could use them to do building out of many, many story buildings, because they're really stable, those kinds of materials. It will just help support the other existing construction material, to provide or to cover the need of construction. It has potential. You could build entire cities out of laterite blocks and compressed earth blocks. You will not do a skyscraper, but do we need skyscrapers in Africa for the moment? They may have their place, but if you see that many cities are flat, like two to three story buildings. And it has a potential to be scaled up because you have a system to come to a sort of industrial production. I see a chance to grow and to create cities also using these materials, not only, but it can contribute to a major part to really build our cities.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: How, how did that shift from an African village, which most of us in living in the West can't even imagine. I mean, we cannot imagine life with a community that doesn't even read or write and communicates with a one hundred percent oral tradition. How did the school change things - how has that community really changed?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: My school project has changed the village dramatically, dramatically, and also myself. It is this project that helped shape my career. It is the primary school that I built. One thing is clear today. Today, we may have more than 1000 students in the village already. This is fact.
From not having a school and like being one of the very rare from that village, very rare, to have one of the very first to attend education, to be able to read, to now having 1000 present students in the village is a big step. Towards going away from a culture where knowledge is orally transmitted, which has weaknesses, things may be misinterpreted, to a society where more people can read and can have free access to in free information. It is a big win, a big, big, total big win.
And then for the community, kids can stay with their community, their parent, and learn how to read and write that is a win. If you know how to read and write, you can access free information. This is so great, something that is important, really important, is the fact that during construction, we have trained people, and the key is while I'm talking to you sitting somewhere in Berlin, these people, you know, we ranging from 60 or 40 core team members to 200, 300 young people are finding a living. They can earn money working on construction sites and feed their families. And this is fundamental. This is fundamental. Normally these young people have to move out from Burkina Faso, from the village or from Burkina Faso and go somewhere else to make a living. And honestly, some never come back. That is what it has brought to the village. A big change.
If you live in the place where knowledge has been orally transmitted, the way the transmission is, it can be deformed, misunderstood and it lead to disinformation.
Nowadays you will see a lot of people fearing to get a vaccine. We know, in fact, that it's reality — if you don't protect yourself against COVID, talk about COVID. People like me have gained voices. We can convince, you know, just to just mention this, about that if people have no access to real information, you can manipulate them easily.
Those are things that are irrational or you have things that are unknown, but they're good for the society. You know, in some of my project, I am using elements from the culture, like Palaver tree, mentally for every African coming from the countryside, a tree is more than just a tree.
If you call together under a tree, it is just calling you for being neutral and open in face of nature. So, I am using this to really say how can a nation use these notions to create a sort of community, to create a national pride? Proud of something, instead of going to the US and making a cheap copy of the White House. You may do the building, but democracy will not be inside.
You need to touch people emotionally, doing so you have to dig in the culture. What matters to these people? For the African, this is what will mobilize them. This is what calls them, what would catch them, their attention, you know, that makes them proud.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: I was interested in your use of the analogy of the White House. And you can build the building, but you won't have democracy. Do you have any lessons for leaders across the world, anywhere in the world, about democracy and how you kind of reach the hearts and minds of, of communities and mobilize them in the right way and also listen to them?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: For me, and what I have seen doing my work, is first we need patience, time to listen to people. And if it comes to democracy, in terms of political system, everyone applying for that system should know you are not elected to become a king. You are elected for a given time to serve people that has elected you.
You need to touch people emotionally, doing so you have to dig in the culture. What matters to these people?”
So, the problem is in some places in Africa to become the leader is a source of income. You have to care for people because they needed you for a given proposal and you need time.
And if you are in a poor nation, then it is important to go back deep in your culture and dig and try to find elements that are unifying, that people have big respect for. That is key to do.
The fact that you have been elected — there is hope in you. If you promised to do something, you should do it. And if you cannot, you should let it be. I mean it's difficult to say, but these are things that I think are so essential and it will bring trust again to our political system. This is so important.
And then if you are a leader in the Western country, you have to give those in countries like Burkina Faso time to grow. Your democratic system is rooted in fight, but if you don't give these people the time to do that, to discover this, it'll never work, it will remain a cheap copy of the Western system, which means there is no real democracy and no real growth in term of economic, in term of even cultural, because you come to impose something that is new destroying the existing one. For everyone, everyone, it is a challenge. It's a real challenge.
I will encourage everyone in Africa to look first for solutions in the country, instead of looking toward the West, always waiting — ‘the West should give us.’ This is not true. No, this is not the good way to just focus on waiting for someone that will come and fix your problem.
You have to fix it yourself. Everyone has a voice.”
You have to fix yourself, really. You have to fix it. Everyone has a voice. I assume that what I believe in, and then we should just stop to making other people responsible of what is happening to us that work hard to transform our communities.
I mean, my little intervention has showing you that you could really stop to be a student, you know, and even refuse to graduate, and go back to your little village and do something for your community, really, really, because of from your heart. And then things like I did will happen.
Gayle Markovitz: You lead these projects as a kind of community leader and also as an architect — how have you evolved as a leader in your career?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: Yeah, first of all, I love to watch myself evolving.
You are in something that, you know, that you try to make, but that is also transforming you. And you could see it happening.
Sometimes it's positive. It is true, nothing is constant. Nothing.
You have to look back and see who you have been, to see that you have been resilient, but also looking forward, never stop. And now that I have changed, you know, I have changed. Nowadays, I see things better and know that it will work, because I started with no evidence of success and you see what you can do, what you can achieve. So, yeah, it's transforming me. Sometimes I was like, wow, pessimistic, if you see that people try to do like you did, and they have been much more successful, especially in terms of economic, if I try to compare myself. But if you really focus on ‘Hey, who I am? I'm the young man coming from Gando.’ I'm not from Berlin, from Brandenburg or from Paris. So, oh, wow how I have achieved. Then you look back and realize, wow, how great and wonderful it was for me to do what I'm doing and what a situation.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: What would you say to students, architecture students, who are graduating this year? What message do you give them?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: It is never too late. Never, never, never too late. So for our audience and for you, I have to tell you, I started to study when I was 30. So, I had another motivation. I believed in what I wanted to give to my people. And I was looking for a solution to do that. So, for a young student, I will say don't be shy. Don't think that is too late for you. Don't think you have no talent. I had no talent. When I started to study I will go to shop and studied the number of colourful pencils that exist.
You can come from scarcity and bring it to greatness.”
I was looking through that and saying, wow, what an abundance. You can come from scarcity, I mean, someone that cannot afford everything and you bring it to greatness. It is possible. Never give up, be resilient, and use any opportunities that is opening to you. Be it just use mud to build a school, like I did. Use whatever you can find no matter where you are and you will succeed.
Gayle Markovitz: Is there a book that you'd recommend?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: I'm going a lot to classics to try to be rooted. We are living in a fast world, everything is fast. And then sometime you’re wondering then, what if I will go back to, to like 2000 years ago to try to read things that are supportive to me and even about time, you know, Seneca.
He wrote like two over 2000 years ago. So, all these people that are taking your time, people that are wasting your time, and you realize that this has been always human struggle, where people come to bother you. I'm talking about focus, how to be focused. I'm trying to really see this. So, it leaded me to read everything and to listen to everything that exists.
I'm going now to classics. I think about Victor Hugo, that I read among many others, because of Candide, the search for the better world. Candide being the story about fleeing, looking for a better place.
And you will find it where you are. You start with your community, you cannot escape. Those kinds of literature help me again.
You realize, the human journey is a struggle. And then what is counting is trying to be yourself, to be positive, really, to hang up with people that can give you intellectually a lot of things, a lot of food, that you could also use to serve other.
That’s what you can give, you know, getting nutrition, intellectually or emotionally from others and to give it to others that need it. That is the greatest thing.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: Do you think the Pritzker prize will change things in your career as a leader? Do you think it will be a turning point, or will you just carry on doing all your great work as before?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: When I got the announcement, I was speechless. Yes, I cried for many, many, I mean, I cannot tell you so. You’ve being fighting to do things. I started in Gando, we had this criticism to members of your family, that will say, he's stupid, why he's doing the school. Like my father at that time was seen as a stupid that he sent his son away.
In my case, you would have like some people that they love you asking why you don't build a house for your mom, why you don't build for your father, why you building the school. It is a government issue, the government should do that. You should not, you know. And then suddenly you get awareness. You inspire the village. Really.
I will tell you a little story. It is one day in the village. I was in the site to finalize things by myself to check. And then an older person got brought to the school by a little kid. So, I realized he couldn't see very well. And he said he wanted to talk to me. He came to say: ‘You have to come to my compound, which is about 400 meters, 500 meters, from the school. From my compound, you have the best view of the school.’ Can you imagine? But he couldn't see. So that is what I have created. It was a lot of emotion. It flows within the people that really, they’re embodied it, it is there. And so if you have that experience in the one hand and then the rejection, you could easily give up already seeing this person being so proud about what we have created.
And now you keep doing it. Now you come to the professional world where people ask you to do things, you keep running, having no time for nothing else, for family. And then you keep do, and you see yourself one day, at least with the title, with an award put within a higher level of people from your profession.
Listen, you understand what I want to tell you? It has changed me. The Pritzker means a lot. Pritzker came to tell me: ‘Hey, Francis, it is great what you've been doing as an architect, potentially as a leader, in your field.’
It is game changing, you know, it is game changing. It’s not just an honour, it is a big encouragement. It tells you ‘Hey, it was good to do what you have done,’ And for sure it will change me even positively. One thing that is clear, let me say practically been given the power to say no. You remember, I was struggling with how to say people no without feeling you rejected them.
Meet the Leader / Gayle Markovitz: Liberating. Who do you say no to?
Diébédo Francis Kéré: If someone just want to have a project where it's about making sure you have maximum of square meter to rent it for expensive money. I don't think I'm qualified for that. Now I have been given the authority to say no.
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