Meet the South African inventor making bricks out of paper


A young inventor from South Africa is launching a product that sounds improbable: a brick, made out of… paper. Yet he says that his “Nubrix” are as resistant as real bricks and can be made much cheaper. His invention addresses two chronic problems in South Africa: a build-up of paper waste and a chronic housing shortage.

South Africa may be developing quickly, but it still faces extensive challenges. The rising standard of living in the country means more consumption and translates to more waste. According to a study conducted by the Department of Environmental Affairs, South Africans produced 108 million tons of waste in 2011. Less than 10 percent of that was recycled.

Meanwhile, 1.9 million families live in shacks and informal dwellings, according to the 2011 census, in what is widely considered a nationwide housing crisis.

He was nicknamed “the black Einstein”

Elijah Djan, now 21, was only three when he did his first science presentation in front of his primary school classmates. His mother, a science teacher, helped him do a demonstration that involved tossing a stone into a pond to explain how gravity works.

So it might not come as a surprise that Elijah was only 11 when he first came up with the idea of using recycled paper to make construction materials. That year, the kid who classmates nicknamed “the black Einstein” built his first prototype of a brick made from paper. He actually bagged a national science prize for it. Most kid’s science projects – like drippy baking soda volcanos and wilting pea plants – get thrown away shortly after victory. However, Elijah didn’t let go of his childhood idea. For all these years, he’s been thinking about it. And remarkably, some of his original bricks – which have now spent more than a decade in the back garden – are still intact.

“I built a wall and it is still standing strong”

Elijah Djan is now a third-year industrial engineering student at the University of Pretoria. And he’s turning his childhood project into a real business, called “Nubrix”.

I came up with this idea when I saw my dad, who is a lecturer, burning old textbooks. I knew that it was bad for the environment, but my dad said he wouldn’t stop doing it unless I had a better idea for how to use the paper.

A few months later, I saw a documentary about shortages for good, low-income housing in the South Africa. That’s when I got the idea. Why not kill two birds with one stone and make building materials out of recycled paper?

Back in 2006, I subjected my bricks to a number of tests. We left them outside in the rain and did compression tests. Last April, I built a wall in my backyard out of these bricks and it is still standing strong, a year later.

However, if I really want to market them as construction materials, I will need to run the full tests that are required for certification from the regulatory board, including tests for fire resistance, thermal capability, durability, water penetration and acoustics.

Djan presenting his product.

Up until last year, it would have been almost impossible for Djan to pay for these tests. However, in November 2016, he won first place in the Green technology category of the Gauteng Accelerator Programme (GAP) Innovation Competitions. Djan says he won 200,000 rand [around €14,000] as well as the opportunity to work with mentors to develop his project.

For me, these bricks are just a start. Eventually, I want to create all different construction materials made from recycled products. I see myself as being a serial entrepreneur, but social innovation will always be important to me. Life is unfair and my faith guides me to work to alleviate some of that suffering.

“I do think he will face some challenges, because he is ahead of the trend”

Phumlani Nkontwana is a South African business man who has mentored Djan for several years through the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation, which runs a programme supporting college students who are interested in entrepreneurship and innovation throughout their undergraduate education.

I’ve worked with 60 to 70 students each year for the past eight years, but [Djan] really stood out to me. What has impressed me the most is how much time he has devoted to his idea; especially in an era when people want instant gratification and quick solutions. He is only 21 and he’s been working on the “Nubrix” for 10 years now.

Elijah Djan presented Nubrix at the Innovation Marketplace, a showcase of young innovators hosted by USAID and MIT, on the MIT campus in the United States in December 2016. He won a prize in the products and services category.

I believe that innovation must address real-world issues. In general, humans are consuming too much. We are currently facing extreme environmental issues, but there is little understanding of the looming crisis within South Africa. For a young man to understand the need to innovate in this way is impressive.

I do think he will face some challenges in getting his product on the market, because he is ahead of the trend. There isn’t consumer demand for this kind of product. Unless the South African government suddenly becomes very green and starts requiring houses to be built in sustainable ways, he will have to create his demand from scratch. That means he will really need funds to market his product.

However, Elijah is pioneering in this way. He has the power to inspire the building sector to move towards more sustainable innovation.