Rebuilding Nepal, sustainably

Build up Nepal empowers rural entrepreneurs in Nepal to build affordable, earthquake-resistant houses using innovative climate-friendly technology.

by Aisiri Amin

When the devastating earthquake hit Nepal in 2015, it displaced 2.8 million people and destroyed more than 800,000 homes. In the immediate aftermath the focus was on the long journey to rebuild lives and livelihood, but Björn Söderberg and Bina Shrestha, who were helping with the recovery in villages, realised the crucial need to look at the bigger picture: building affordable, earthquake-resistant homes.

With this vision, Björn and Bina started the non-profit, Build up Nepal, to empower people living in villages to turn entrepreneurs by starting their micro-construction enterprises, with climate consciousness at its core.

Interlocking Brick Health Post at Bakhang, Sindhupalchowk. © Build up Nepal

They specialise in the Interlocking Brick Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks (CSEB) technology to produce bricks using local materials, which provides employment opportunities for marginalised rural communities. This alternative method also significantly decreases the cost and CO2 emissions, making houses affordable and eco-friendly.

Currently, Build up Nepal has a network of about 300 entrepreneurs who have build 4,500 houses and they have created 2,500 jobs across Nepal. For their innovative initiative, Build up Nepal received the Ashden Award 2020 in the category “Sustainable Built Environment Global”.

We spoke to their co-founder, Björn Söderberg, about the importance of creating sustainable and affordable housing in Nepal and how rural entrepreneurship is tackling forced migration.

Build up Nepal creates employment opportunities in rural areas to reduce forced migration. © Build up Nepal

INKLINE: Build Up Nepal ties together affordable housing, employment, and climate consciousness. How did you come up with the idea for this initiative?

Björn Söderberg: When we were helping villages after the earthquake, we realised that the only effective way to rebuild in mountainous villages was by empowering local people and with technology that uses local materials. So, we started interviewing families and asked them a simple question: What does your dream house look like?

Every family said they wanted a house of brick and concrete. That’s the aspiration, especially in poor villages, as most of them were living in a stone house before they collapsed during the earthquake. But, bricks are expensive, to produce and to transport up to the Himalayas. It is also a disaster for the climate as 37% of the CO2 emissions in Nepal is from the brick factories.

We researched for a better way and found the technology of compressed stabilised earth bricks which has been around for a long time, it’s like 30 to 40 years old. We decided to introduce it through a network of local entrepreneurs and teach people in villages how to make their bricks and build earthquake-resistant houses using them.

I: The construction sector has always been male-dominated but your venture emphasises inclusivity. Tell us about how important it is to make this a focus.

B: It’s important in many ways. A lot of female workers who were bound to their homes are now travelling for work. When women start working, two people bring in income in a family which makes an enormous difference in helping people out of poverty.

Moreover, we have seen that women are better workers, especially in brick production. This is due to several reasons. The main is that men are not reliable here. For instance, if they get an opportunity to earn a little bit more money for two weeks, they’re gone. They jump from one opportunity to the next. But, women are often looking for stability and are also more tied to the work. We hire more in our enterprises not just to empower women, but you because they are more dependable.

This non-profit promotes inclusivity in the construction sector, which is male-dominated. © Build up Nepal

I:  Build Up Nepal has been building quality sustainable houses for the marginalized sections. What are the gaps that you’re addressing?

B: Usually a house is the biggest investment for a marginalised family. With the Interlocking Brick (CSEB) technology and our network of local entrepreneurs, we can reduce the cost of building a house by roughly 25 to 30% which makes a massive difference. This can be the difference that you can afford to build three rooms instead of two for a family of six, or it can be the difference of being able to afford to build the house at all. Moreover, for the cost, you get a house that is earthquake-resistant and can last for many years.

After the earthquake, without a house to live in, dropout rates in schools started increasing, and diseases were spreading with people lived in temporary shelters. It’s important to ensure people have a home to depend on.

One of the most important aspects is also creating employment in villages. For decades, people from villages have migrated to cities or even abroad to look for work. They often don’t have a choice, which becomes forced migration. Our focus has been on supporting rural entrepreneurs so that people can live in their village and make a good living. We provide intensive support during the first 12 months to help them become self-sustainable. After this, they are on their own. It’s like creating an economic engine in the village where news jobs are created as more people turn entrepreneurs and simultaneously, houses are also built.

 I: The way that you build the houses, it reduces carbon emissions by 35 to 60%. Can you tell us more about this technology?

B: Fire bricks are a climate disaster. You bring coal from India, transport it to brick kilns in Nepal, burn them without a proper filtration system and emission sprayed out in the air without any kind of control. This results in a huge amount of CO2 emissions which is also the biggest source of black carbon that is melting the Himalayan glaciers. And it causes a lot of air pollution.

However, we use the Interlocking Bricks (CSEB) technology. Our bricks are made from a mix of local soil that you get from the ground and sand that you get from nearby which is mixed with a bit of cement. So, cement is the one thing in our bricks, that creates emissions. But it’s far less than what you get from the fire bricks. These bricks are hollow so instead of putting a thick layer of mortar between each brick, you pour mortar through the holes in the bricks, which both makes it stronger. But it also reduces the amount of mortar and cement needed in the construction.

Build up Nepal has built more than 4,500 homes. © Build up Nepal

Over the next 10 to 15 years, there is going to be hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of houses built in this region as marginalised people are slowly working their way out of poverty, which is an amazing development.

We want make sure that this development can happen somewhat sustainably, because if we keep on building like we are right now when the fire bricks are already the biggest emitter of CO2 emissions in Nepal, we have a huge environmental and global problem.

But, we can’t tell that to the families who dream of living in a brick house. To make that sustainable, the key is to make it cost-effective. It is the combination that works because no marginalised family is going to choose our bricks because they are environment friendly. It might be an added benefit. But the key is to make sure that the sustainable option is the best.

I: What has been the uplifting part of this journey?

B: The best part is when you come back to villages where we supported entrepreneurs start their micro-enterprise, there are five new housing systems creating employment within two years. The main thing is that these are just happening without us being involved. We did provide the initial support and training but it’s wonderful to witness things evolve on their own. The people in these villages are rebuilding, with better houses and more job opportunities.

I: What is in store for the future?

B: In the last few years, our focus has been on rebuilding after the earthquake. Now, we are trying to expand this technology across the entire country, making sure that this is adopted as a more effective method for construction in Nepal. We want this to be the mainstream construction technology, not just an alternative.

The Interlocking Brick technology has saved 20,610 tonnes of CO2. Build up Nepal

I: if you could give any kind of advice to entrepreneurs around the world, what would that be?

B: If you are passionate about an idea or you have a dream, the most important thing is to get started. Too many people have an idea but hesitate because they don’t have enough money or feel like they can’t do it. You find so many reasons for why you can’t. Especially, people often believe that you need a lot of money to start a business and that’s often not true. You need to think of a smarter way to make sales and make it cost-effective. It is just about getting started and not wait till tomorrow.

Two Ashden Awards, for regenerative agriculture and energy access skills, are still open for applications. The deadline is March 17. Apply here.

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