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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  Refugees need snappy homes instead of flimsy shelters

Refugees need snappy homes instead of flimsy shelters

The challenge was to design a secure house that weighs less than half a tonne, could be put up and knocked down in less than six hours by less than six people with the simplest of tools

Photo: Reuters (REUTERS)Premium
Photo: Reuters (REUTERS)

In 2020, at the height of the covid pandemic, I was approached by a dear friend and senior from college with a complex problem statement: How do we build a house that weighs less than half a tonne, can be put up and knocked down in less than 6 hours, by less than 6 people, using nothing but the simplest of tools, while also providing a dry, warm and secure place to live. I didn’t know it at the time, but we would essentially be attempting to re-imagine the entire space of relief housing for displaced refugees. For the longest time that I could remember, what truly excited me about life and motivated me to get up in the morning was the idea that I was perhaps contributing to something larger than myself that was not only impactful, but could have outsized impact. At this time, I was a little over a year into my first job as an operations manager at Procter & Gamble, and while battling covid to keep my team safe, delivering challenging operational results and being away from my family for what was now the tenth month, I signed on as chief operating officer at what would become Nostos Homes.

In a traditional refugee camp, cramped housing can allow diseases to spread. Lack of sturdy walls, security and privacy can make it impossible for working members of a family to leave the rest by themselves in these units and seek employment elsewhere. The psychological trauma of not having a home and not knowing when they will have one again can make it hard for families to rebuild their lives. The goal of Nostos Homes was to provide a dry, warm and secure place that would give people as close a home as possible, complete with privacy, safety and dignity. For our first pilot deployment, we would build out four home units and deploy them in the flood belt of western Karnataka.

The need-fulfilment idea was to create a kit that a group of people who had never seen a Nostos home before could easily assemble one within a few hours without specialized equipment. There were several constraints that the design needed to fulfil, such as longevity, strength, being lightweight and, most importantly, being made of standard materials that could be found and fabricated in most medium-sized industrial set-ups. We finally came up with a novel design and were able to file a patent on it, something that the entire team takes immense pride in.

Sourcing the right manufacturing vendor proved to be an extremely challenging task and it must have been my fiftieth call that finally led me to a vendor based in western India willing to take on the project. This was April 2021. Given our frugal budget, transportation was the next challenge, and Sanjiv Rangrass, who is part of ITC’s top leadership and a well-known angel investor, connected us to BlackBuck, India’s largest trucking platform, which could help us with our pilot by shipping the houses for us at cost. While all this was happening on the operations front, a sizable amount of my time was being invested in developing future deployment opportunities for these houses. We engaged with multiple organizations, ranging from Habitat for Humanity India to the state governments of Nagaland and West Bengal, to find takers for the product.

A couple of days before setting off for the Karnataka deployment in November 2021, I came down with a severe fever. It was dengue and I was advised to take complete rest for at least a week. This was something I refused to do, and with the help of multiple members of the local farming community, I got to work setting up the houses.

At this point, I realized that there were significant errors committed by the vendor in the fabrication of the kits of these units, and at the end of the week, only two of the four could be assembled. However, we decided to repair the houses with help from a local machinist, and set up them up as planned.

The satisfaction that I felt when the last house went up, built solely by local folks—entirely unassisted—was unparalleled. Many of the people who worked to build out the four units had suffered displacement on account of seasonal flooding. They all spoke about not just how innovative they thought the concept was, but that we had indeed built ‘homes’ and not just shelters.

To scale up, Nostos has been exploring multiple different operating models and approaches to delivering impact, all the way from outsourced manufacturing to licensing, localized construction and supporting innovations in this space with grants. Our claim is that each such unit can provide more than 32,000 people-nights of shelter in its life span; the four homes we set up on a pilot basis can together generate about 130,000 people nights.

Since displacement is an unfortunate reality, it is important that provisions made for displaced people get the benefits of design innovation. My own journey with Nostos has been profoundly transformational, as has been the case for other participants. It not only gave me conviction in my abilities, but also solidified my resolve in this space. Much can be achieved by deploying solutions for the greater good.

Rohit Sar works as an impact investor at investment firm Lightrock


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Published: 16 Mar 2023, 11:05 PM IST
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