Living with Extreme Heat in Low-Income Communities in Ghana

Caroline Knowles
6 min readAug 24, 2021

Caroline Knowles

Located in sub-Saharan Africa, Ghana has always been hot, and climate change is expected to make it hotter still. Although it is not a major contributor of greenhouse gasses, Ghana is exposed to their impact in raising already high temperatures. Average temperatures that rise beyond 30 and 40 degrees impact people’s vitality and ability to work. It makes living and working uncomfortable and it impacts people’s health. But heat’s discomforts and health-effects are unevenly distributed. Those able to cool their homes and workplaces with air conditioning units and ceiling fans are much less exposed to heat than poorer communities who can’t.

Nowhere are the social arrangements of heat more apparent than in Agbogbloshie, a low-income neighbourhood in south central Accra. Agbogbloshie is wedged into a rough, unpaved part of this city of 4 million people, on railway lands next to the Accra Brewery Industrial complex. Here lives a longstanding Ga community dating back to the 1960s. While some residents live in formal, simply constructed, houses owned by landlords living in the community, many Agbogbloshie residents don’t own the land on which they live. They live beyond the formal structures and infrastructures of the city and yet their landlords charge them high rents relative to their incomes.

Street scene in Agbogbloshie

This is a community that lives on the knife-edge of informal city life where things are makeshift, rigged together by human effort and ingenuity on a daily basis, and often lived in the open air. The sewage system is intended for the brewery, and most households depend on public toilets. Water is paid for and carried. Basic electricity networks run lights and not much more. Here, life is lived in tiny rigged-together housing and workshops, made in wood, concrete and metal, satellite dishes reaching out to the sky, washing strung out to dry; and all in searing heat. Outside formal labour markets. Outside the local market. Cloth spread on the ground offering food and other wares for sale, shielded from the sun by pieces of cloth pinned together for shelter. Hawkers — a mobile sales force — sell fruit, bread, plastic kitchenware and plastic bags of ‘pure water’ for drinking. Everyone has ingeniously, creatively, devised some way to make a living. And ways to hang on to what they have got: security is an ever-present concern.

Step inside the buildings and it is just as hot. Tailors work in tiny overheated workshops, cutting and sewing cloth. Women style hair in equally overheated conditions. Carpenters work outside under an awning. Women cook — the hottest activity of all — in industrial scale outdoor kitchens, supplying local business. Agbogbloshie is an upbeat hive of entrepreneurial activity. People live in tiny single rooms, nervous on security grounds of leaving windows open to channel cooling breezes, although they are often forced to sleep outside when it is very hot. Life is permanently precarious, full of uncertainties. People live with the risk of eviction by landlords seeking higher rents. And they work to eat. Each day. Subsistence is a skill that is learned, practiced, honed, repeated. Life in Agbogbloshie is difficult. In searing heat it is close to impossible.

Informal market in Agbogbloshie

So is it possible to reduce the impact of extreme heat on those who are the most exposed to it because they lack the funds to mitigate its effects? Agbogbloshie is one of two research sites in Accra — with two more in Tamale — for a GCRF British Academy-funded project headed by Katherine Gough at Loughborough University with colleagues at the University of Ghana (Accra) and the University for Development Studies (Tamale)[i], which examines ways of reducing the impact of extreme heat to improve well-being for the poorest communities. The research draws on the expertise of geographers, climate specialists, architects and civil engineers, working across the usual disciplinary silos.

Tiny tags record site specific temperatures and relative humidity

Instead of using the usual measures of average temperature data gathered by weather stations, researchers cooperating with local Community Champions, who live in the communities they research, have developed accurate measures of the heat with which people actually live and work. Yellow disks called ‘tiny tags’ that record temperature and relative humidity every ten minutes, are placed around homes and workplaces. Wearable sensors supply additional data, logging the temperatures people actually experience throughout the day as they go about their activities. Because people experience heat differently, and adapt to it over time, researchers have conducted ‘thermal comfort surveys’. These check how people are actually experiencing heat ‘right now, right here’ and, when combined with temperature data, paint a detailed picture of comfort and tolerance of heat in low-income communities.

Agbogbloshie

With this data, the team are able to suggest adaptations to homes and workplaces that reduce inside temperatures, working with the natural resources of air and light. Low cost, sustainable adaptations include repositioning windows and doors to better circulate air. Drilling air-holes near ceilings to let hot air escape. Installing ceilings beneath roofs reduces heat: these can be constructed from cheap hardboard and even from cardboard cartons. Other solutions involve small ceiling fans to move air around; extending roofs to form verandas and shade exterior walls. Methods for shading walls include growing trees and potted plants nearby; and most ingenious of all, planting creepers in plastic bottles and directing them with string and sticks to cover walls and roofs. Outside areas benefit from tree planting and creating shade with pieces of cloth.

Change takes time. But these suggestions are already creating discussions among local people about how they use their space and how this sometimes restricts the changes they can make to reduce inside temperatures. Some kiosk shop owners are reluctant to cut extra windows in a wall they need for shelving and storage. They might be encouraged to rethink. A kiosk tailor explained that he would consider drilling air-holes near his ceiling to improve air circulation, but could not move his sewing desk to take better advantage of cross breezes, because it was positioned so that he could supervise his apprentice: both would need to move. Perhaps they will. As a result of the research people will be able to decide for themselves what they are prepared to change in order to reduce the temperatures in which they live and work. And researchers are taking these factors on board, so that their suggested adaptations can factor-in local practices, living arrangements and income generating activities. These are exciting collaborative experiments in cooler space-making.

At the University for Development studies in Tamale, to the north of Accra, the research team is building test cells — small buildings using different materials — to determine which are best for reducing heat. These experiments are capturing the attention of city and even national authorities responsible for building codes. Building and adapting buildings for extreme heat offers a way forward to better levels of thermal comfort and improved health and well-being in low- income communities.

The beauty of this project is its simplicity and accessibility. Communities easily grasp the lessons of the research, understand how it might improve their lives, and are eager to learn how to adapt their homes and workshops. They are changing their behaviour too; relaxing, and even sleeping, outside when inside is hotter; increasing their use of shade for outdoor activities; taking less exposed routes through the city; varying their activities to take advantage of cooler times of day and thinking about the effects of heat on their health, are some of their adaptations.

[i] Partners include Eftychia Spentzou, Kevin Lomas and Rob Willby at Loughborough University, Raymond Kasei, at the University for Development Studies, Tamale, Ghana, Samuel Nii Ardey Codjoe and Ebeneezer Amankwaa, at the University of Ghana, Accra, and Fredrick Manu BRRI and CSIR, Ghana.

Caroline Knowles is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths University of London and Director of the British Academy’s GCRF Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme. Caroline writes about migration and circulation of material objects — some of the social forces constituting globalisation. She is particularly interested in cities, having done research in London, Hong Kong, Beijing, Fuzhou, Addis Ababa, Kuwait City and Seoul.

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