Bamboo House India (BHI) is a construction enterprise founded by Aruna Kappagantula and Prashant Lingam. It does some truly incredible work, constructing houses and even larger structures out of bamboo and plastic waste. Through this, it provides employment to artisans and the ragpicker community, who are dependent on either bamboo or recycled plastic for their livelihoods. Having started 14 years ago, BHI has built more than 100 houses till date.
In our interview with Aruna Kappagantula, we discussed her enterprise Bamboo House India, the environmental and social impact of it and an individual’s role in being a #PlanetProtector by adopting a #OneMinuteHabit.
Q: How did you come up with the idea of using bamboo and plastic for building?
A: It was not a planned venture. We were searching for eco-friendly furniture for our house but I wasn’t able to find anything to my liking. I wanted something different. That is when I started searching the internet and came across bamboo furniture. That was my first encounter with bamboo furniture or bamboo.
I was taken aback by the beauty of it and my husband was equally enthusiastic. He said, ‘Fine, chalo. Let us search [bamboo furniture] kahan milega.’
We learned about a small place called Katlamara on the Indo-Bangladesh border where the NID was training artisans in bamboo furniture making. So, we landed up there!
When we spoke to the artisans, we understood the huge disconnect in the industry. For them, being part of the trade was not easy. The North-East is kind of disconnected from the market and the bamboo industry is not organized, as such. Therefore, it was not a booming industry. That is when we came up with the idea of helping these artisans out and ourselves out. So, we built a business model out of it.
Q: Tell us about the work you do at Bamboo House India?
A: Even though we started with furniture in 2006, we understood that bamboo furniture was too costly an investment and didn’t have much of a market. People were not very interested in it or in moving towards sustainable living then. Moreover, one artisan took around one month to make a piece of furniture and the cost was around Rs. 40,000. People were not willing to accept the new concept.
We also wanted to give artisans round-the-year employment and create a novel product that people needed so that we could build a sustainable business.
We did not want them to buy it out of charity, thinking ‘it is a handcrafted product, so let me bargain and buy it’.
This is when our main focus shifted towards bamboo housing. Erecting one house provides employment to about 150-200 people in the chain.
Q: How would you respond to that idea that people are unwilling to change because they feel that bamboo houses are not as good as concrete and brick ones?
A: First, when we compare it to concrete, bamboo is far more eco-friendly. It is a grass and not a tree, and if one doesn’t cut bamboo, it loses its strength after 7-8 years. So, it needs to be cut and cutting it doesn’t harm the surrounding ecosystem.
Second, bamboo houses are 2-3 degrees cooler than regular concrete houses. Our bamboo houses come in complete knockdown units that can be taken down and re-erected somewhere else.
But I need to say this—no two houses can be compared. We are not competing against any other material. We are providing a material that is eco-friendly and sustainable. We try to educate people and create awareness about this.
Why should someone choose bamboo houses over wood or concrete houses?
– Bamboo houses are sustainable. It is used from material that is biodegradable and not one-time-use concrete. It doesn’t add to the rubble.
– Bamboo is not a tree, it’s grass. It needs to be cut after 7-8 years or it loses its strength. So, bamboo cultivation isn’t harmful and doesn’t lend to deforestation.
– Bamboo houses are 2-3 degrees cooler than regular concrete houses.
– Bamboo houses can be knocked down and re-erected elsewhere as complete units.
Q: Through your efforts, how do you see yourself as influencing the behaviour of regular people to become more environmentally conscious? Do you have any suggestions of daily #OneMinuteHabits that people can undertake to help the environment?
A: Well, apart from bamboo houses we also build recycled-plastic houses. We collect plastic waste, recover and process it, make it into boards and use them for house construction. We are able to collect a lot of plastic because people daily throw so many plastic bags. So, as a #OneMinuteHabit, I would say people should not throw plastic covers irresponsibly on the roads. If we don’t throw it straight into the dustbin, if we send it for recycling rather than letting it end up in a dump yard or in some water body, this plastic waste can actually be recycled and converted into something useful.
Q: What is your vision of taking this business idea and creating large-scale change at the national level?
A: In India, there are still a lot of restrictions on bamboo usage. Harvesting and even transporting, every process related to bamboo is restricted under the laws. For now, I don’t see it blooming into a full-fledged, profitable industry because it is too unorganized. We don’t have easy access to raw material nor trained manpower. Such an initiative can only be undertaken as a social enterprise.
Basically, this is not a product that we sell, we sell a concept. It takes time for a concept to sink in. However, people are slowly moving towards sustainable living and bamboo is part of that thought process.
Q: What are the roadblocks you face that makes it difficult to make bamboo houses?
– Laws: In each state, the laws on bamboo cultivation and transportation differ. It is also treated as a protected species like timber and sandalwood, when it is not even a tree. This makes using bamboo more difficult and disregards the long-term benefits of using bamboo in construction.
– Skilled Labour: As there is not much focus on skill development in bamboo construction and there is not much variety in scope of employment for those who take up the skill, there is a shortage of people willing to take up bamboo construction.
– Awareness: There is a lack of awareness about the benefits of switching to structures made of bamboo. Many don’t even know that such a concept exits.
Q: Can anything be done to tackle these roadblocks at a governmental level or through mobilizing the sector?
We as an entity have tried our maximum, through our website, to provide information. In the last 14 years, we have successfully educated a lot of people about bamboo houses. The media has supported us by spread our message to more and more people. But this has been a process. This has been a continuous process and it will really take time. Changes in the law can further help us in our endeavors.
Q: There are many budding #PlanetProtectors who have ideas for environmentally sustainable businesses. Can you give them advice on how they can make their dreams into viable businesses?
A: You need to have a lot of patience when you want to get into social entrepreneurship. In the initial days when you have a concept or idea, nobody is going to believe that it will work out, very few people will believe in you or stand by you. It will be more of a struggle. When we started, there were not too many institutes supporting these causes. But now a lot of organizations and institutes are helping us spread the message. Apart from that, you have to believe in your idea. You have to create a step-by-step plan of how you’d like to go forward. You have to take risks but they should be calculated risks. Move ahead and do not give up easily.