Carmen K. Sisson
August 23, 2012 10:26:14 AM
It quickly became apparent why Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., chose
to ride with Wil Colom rather than go to New Hope alone Wednesday.
Even with the address in hand and a rough idea of what he would
find on Lauren Road, Wicker still might have driven past his
destination, assuming the tidy houses on the pine-strewn lot were
an ordinary subdivision.
The shine in Colom's eyes as he and Wicker walked up the
driveway told a different story: He believes these simple
structures will revolutionize Africa in the same way cellular
technology has revolutionized the world.
Colom, an attorney and philanthropist, has spent eight years
working on this project, and Wicker has been involved from its
conception, when Quality Housing was little more than the skeletal
framework of a larger-than-life dream.
Accompanied by his business partner, Utah lawyer James
Parkinson, and other business owners from around the country, Colom
entered one of the houses and walked into the kitchen.
When he turned on the faucet and clean water spilled from the
spigot, the collective reaction was amazement. Everyone crowded
around him, thrusting styrofoam cups to be filled.
Colom took the first swallow. It tasted like the future.
A call to action
Colom's vision of affordable housing in Africa began nearly a
decade ago on the Serengeti Plain.
As he stood beside a scarlet-clad Maasai warrior, the man
reached beneath his robe and extracted an object. There, among a
tribe of semi-nomadic people who lived by the spear, Colom
witnessed an elder being summoned - by cell phone.
Solar power kept the phone charged; a gas generator powered the
But the continent remains besieged with problems. Colom believes
houses like the ones he and Parkinson are building will solve the
housing shortage and improve the health and quality of life for
The idea is simple: Design a home made of cheap,
readily-available materials that can be shipped overseas for
assembly and mortgage the homes to middle-class families.
Success has proven more difficult. As he walked around the
prototypes Wednesday, Colom pointed out the reason each design was
The goal was to find a house that could be built for $62,000 in
the United States and built and mortgaged in Africa for around
$35,000. But there were setbacks.
The dome-shaped house was easy to frame and roof but the
interior was too expensive. The wire mesh and sprayed concrete
house was expensive and required too much equipment and
These homes will be rented. The latest creation, made entirely
of concrete, steel and PVC siding, will be the testing ground for
The houses offer a self-sustaining solution utilizing solar and
wind power and rainwater collected and transformed into potable
water. Someday, wastewater may be transformed into methane gas for
A sustainable dream must make economic sense, Colom and
Parkinson believe, and they feel they've finally hit upon a formula
to commercialize the venture and ensure its expansion.
A helping hand
Wicker's role is that of armchair quarterback, public relations
liaison, wheel-greaser and granter of wishes.
For him, it offers an equally appealing promise - the marrying
of American jobs and an African growth strategy built upon exports,
economic development and global trade competition.
Colom and Parkinson have not been successful in securing federal
funding; instead, the prototypes have been financed privately.
But Wicker believes he can change that by involving Overseas
Product Investment Corporation (OPIC) and the United States Agency
for International Development (USAID).
OPIC, a federal agency, advances U.S. foreign policy by
providing investors with financing, bank guarantees, political risk
insurance and private equity investment funds, helping U.S.
businesses establish themselves overseas in emerging markets. USAID
assists foreign countries with social and economic development.
Together, OPIC and USAID may provide Quality Housing with the
push it needs to move from concept to completion.
But Colom will never truly be finished. He is always scanning
the horizon, looking for ways to improve.
"We want to take this all over east Africa until we drop dead,"
Colom said, laughing.
"I've never seen anybody like him," Parkinson responded, shaking
Carmen K. Sisson covers education, family, health, and
community issues. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter at