Colloquium: The Plot and the Block: Cement chain and city making in the West African Urban Corridor (Accra, Lomé, Cotonou, Lagos)

13.12.2017 16:15 to 18:00

Armelle Choplin, Associate Professor in Geography and Urban Planning, Geneva

In a context of « planetary urbanisation » (Brenner, Schmid, 2016), this paper focuses on what constitutes the materiality of the urban process: “cement”. Along the West African urban corridor, between Accra, Lomé, Cotonou and Lagos (500kms), the largest urban metropolis in Africa is under progress: more than 25 millions inhabitants live, circulate, consume and… build.

Following the material and the social lives of cement, the paper aims (1) to analyse the “cement chain” (extraction, production, circulation and consumption) which links rural, suburban and urban spaces and produce urban corridors; (2) to decipher the consensus around cement as an element of progress; and (3) to understand the social uses and symbols materialized by concrete.

Crossing building and dwelling perspectives, and mobilising urban political ecology literature (Heynen et al. 2005; Gandy, 2002) and urban subaltern studies (Bayat 1997, Robinson 2006, Roy 2011), we pay attention to the urban metabolism, the political and economic narratives and the everyday city-dwellers practices. To grasp the African city making, we adopt a « follow the thing » approach, inspired by material studies (Clark et al. 2008), tracing the pathways of cement bags, starting from the quarry to the delivery, from the plant to the plot. This requires also a multi-scale approach to observe all the actors involved in the cement chain, from the owner of the plot to the bricklayer, from the chief-manager of major companies to international developers and government agency.

Finally, the paper questions the idea of sustainability as it is well known that cement industry is one of the most pollutant. Regarding international urban agendas and the ODD, it invites to reflect on alternative urban future, promoting local building materials instead of concrete.




The public Colloquium takes place on a weekly basis during the term. Guests or researchers and MA students at the Institute of Social Anthropology present their work.

When: Every Wednesday from 16:15 - 18h

Where: at the Institute of Social Anthropology, Münsterplatz 19, 4051 Basel

Program of the Colloquium [PDF (35 KB)]