This start up is rebuilding Nepal one brick at a time

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Eco Cell was set up post devastating earthquake of 2015 to rebuild homes in Nepal. Sacheet Pandit who started the company with Bivek Adhikari, Subash Shrestha and Nissan C.  Shrestha have been tackling challenges from the day 1 of their ventures. The four founders met at Tribhuvan University where they graduated with their respective MBA degrees but little did they know their friendship would turn into something in to business.

Read further to know how the founders of this company fought all odds heads on to start manufacture eco-friendly bricks.

1. Can you share the concept and idea of your business? How did you start Eco Cell?  

After the earthquake, I visited all the affected areas with my friends and saw many towns and villages devastated.  With their houses ruined, the locals and villagers lost faith in stone houses. When we came back to the city we searched for alternatives for reconstruction and the first option that came up was red clay brick which is very expensive and have many shortfalls. We then looked for the fastest and cheapest way to build homes and came across CSEB which stands for Compressed Stabilized Earth Brick. This was used in large scale reconstruction projects in Indonesia after the tsunami. We felt extremely confident about CSEB, so we dived right in and bought machinery from China to begin manufacturing CSEB

2. What social issues do you want to solve through your company? 

Building reconstruction is the main social problem that we want to solve. We are currently focused on building residential homes for the poor and rural communities. We work with NGOs that help us in building homes for our target beneficiaries.

The other problem that we are trying to address is youth empowerment. People want to work in Nepal and invest their time in building a business but they don’t have ideas on how to operate a business so we empower them by giving them our franchise. We provide machinery and training to aspiring entrepreneurs or youth who want to do the same business as ours in their community. We now have 22 branches in Nepal which are operating and manufacturing bricks.

3. We went through your website which says your product is eco-friendly. What does eco-friendly actually mean to you? 

Traditionally construction uses red clay bricks as their wall construction material which comes with a heavy price of environmental degradation. Cultivable lands have to be excavated or the soil and bricks need to be baked. Upto 15 standard size trees should be chopped off to bake bricks used for a standard size home. Simply put, these bricks are not good for the environment.
On the other hand, interlocking bricks are produced using stone dust (sub-soil), cement, sand and water as raw materials. These bricks do not need to be baked so with each home constructed with interlocking bricks 15 trees are saved from being chopped off. This makes it the most eco-friendly solution out there today. Furthermore, we use stone dust as our raw material which is construction waste produced from crusher plants, if not used by industry like ours will end up in rivers nearby polluting major water sources.

4. In the past 4 years, what challenges have you faced while setting up the company? 

We faced a lot of problems right from day one which was during and post-earthquake period. Once we were sure that CSEB was the product we want to work with, we bought the machinery from China but it was held at the port in India for 3 months. We had to pay detention charges for the entire duration it was kept at the port and ended up losing our entire working capital to clear these charges.

Eventually, when the machines arrived there was a huge crisis of fuel and electricity in Nepal. We tackled it by designing a generator to keep up with the frequent power cuts. However when the machines broke down which happened very frequently, finding the desired spare parts and mechanics was nearly impossible as the machinery was new to the entire industry.

While making the brick we used Rato Mato, a type of red clay soil that is considered to be the best raw material to produce these bricks. However, we could not get the desired strength required for building construction. It takes 28 days to test the strength of brick once its manufactured so we kept testing our products for 6- 9 months and researching on it. Finally, we decided to go to India and see what other CSEB manufacturers are doing. So while our decision to use laterite wasn’t wrong the nature and condition of the soil in India and Nepal is different.

5. How was the initial response from the clients for the bricks?

When we started producing bricks it was a new product for the market. We had to convince people and work on building their trust. A lot of people felt our concept was different. Many didn’t believe in us as the fact that we used cement did not seem convincing. But we would build one house and then it would catch the eye of one person and that number slowly kept growing steadily. People started seeing it looked the same as other bricks and houses.

6. Does the wall become strong with your bricks?

Yeah, definitely it gains more strength than fire oven bricks because we have a lab report that has been tested and proved.

7. What about manpower? Did you face any challenges for hiring people?

Hiring people was also a learning experience for us. Being a small scale business we have had instances where people came and work for 2 months and then they just moved on. We also hired 4 people from India and provided them with food and salary. But we were facing frequent breaking down of our machines causing us to lose work days. If we worked for 2 days then we would be closed for 4 days. Having a fixed salary for employees was putting us in a loss and hence we shifted to hiring people from Nepal and around the valley.

8. What is your team strength?

It was the 4 of us and 2 employees till we got the right product. Now we have  a staff 12 people including 7 labors, 2 admin workers and 2 engineers

9. When and how were you able to turn around the business situation for yourselves?

When we started selling our bricks we realized that e would always get additions orders from people in the same area. Overtime, we had a steady clientele. However, the turning point of our organization was getting featured on ‘Money Talks’. After the publicity, we started getting multiple brick orders, machine inquiries, and franchise applications. That is when we really started expanding our business.

10. How many customers and clients do you have per month?   

We can’t give an accurate number but the average would be 10 customers on brick sales and 2 – 3 for masonry and franchise applications. It’s been only  7 months since we started giving franchise options and we already have 22 franchises all over the country.

11. How do you market your product?

We tried to market it to the builders but it didn’t work out because of high commission rates. Now we are focus on promoting our Facebook page and website which directly targets our retail customers. People who want to build homes for themselves reach out to us for bricks and we give them the best solutions for the long run.

When asked about their business and profits, Sacheet replied that there had been no profits until two years ago when finally their self-funding stopped and expansion of the company started happening at full pace.

On the horizon, the goal now for Eco Cell is capture markets in India. They want to spread awareness about compressed stabilized earth blocks and with an expected ban on fire bricks in the future Eco Cell looks perfectly placed.

You can read more about Eco Cell at https://ecocell.com.np/ or check out their Facebook page.