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The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Nepal in 2015 killed around 8,800 people. Even more people would have died, Bina Shrestha said, if the ground had ruptured at night.
But the earthquake struck when the sun was still high in the sky; people were able to rush outdoors when they felt the earth trembling. While the timing saved lives, it didn’t save infrastructure. Hospitals, schools, and electricity systems were destroyed, along with more than 600,000 homes.
Shrestha, her husband, and her son joined the humanitarian response when the call to action went out. But she saw right away that recovering from the earthquake would take years and that people who lost their homes wouldn’t be able to resume their lives until they had a place to live.
“It was heart-wrenching to see women and children living in shelterless places,” she told Global Citizen. “A lot of people were sitting outside of their houses that were razed to the ground.
“We wanted to find a long-term solution and housing was the problem at the moment,” she added. “These were all poor people who couldn’t afford a new house.”
So Shrestha co-founded Build Up Nepal, a social business dedicated to rebuilding homes across the country, especially in hard-to-reach and often-overlooked areas. In the five years since, the company has built more than 6,000 homes with low-cost and environmentally friendly materials.
But the organization goes beyond putting up walls and roofs. By offering jobs and entrepreneurial opportunities to people, it helps to provide long-term stability for communities.
Now, as Shrestha seeks to bring Build Up Nepal to the next level, she has been selected as the Grand Prize winner of the 2021 Waislitz Global Citizen Award and will receive a $100,000 cash prize to help the group reach its goal for 2030: 1,500 trained entrepreneurs, 15,000 jobs, and 200,000 low-cost homes.
“Right now we are facing a funding and resources challenge,” she said. “We have to support entrepreneurs in business and technical training, we have to maintain machines and ensure quality — there’s a lot of resource bottlenecks as well.
“We will be using this money mainly to create more opportunities for each and every village,” she continued. “We will be using the money to scale up — we want to go to every village in Nepal. We’ll also be supporting existing entrepreneurs, who have been closed or semi-functioning because of COVID-19.”
When Shrestha noticed that the lack of housing was the main obstacle to a country-wide recovery, she began looking for solutions that would fit the national context.
Traditional construction is resource- and labor-intensive and has an immense environmental impact. It’s also difficult to bring construction equipment and personnel to remote villages. It would be hard to scale that kind of model for many of the small communities that were impacted by the earthquake, she said.
“In a very underdeveloped country, we couldn’t do these big productions,” she said, adding that she began doing some research into potential alternatives.
“We found this interlocking brick solution that was used in housing as a disaster-resilient kind of building,” she said. “It didn’t require any kind of infrastructure, it was eco-friendly, and it could be done with local supplies.”
The eco-friendly part is hard to overstate. Bricks are typically created in Nepal by the brick kiln industry, which is notorious for child labor and poor working conditions, according to UNICEF. The kilns burn coal, biomass, and other harmful materials to generate heat for brick production, and the resulting fumes include greenhouse gas emissions and other airborne pollutants. In fact, brick kilns across South Asia generate as much greenhouse gases as all the passenger cars in the US combined, and kill tens of thousands of people annually from toxic air pollution, according to Stanford University.
The technology that Shrestha found requires no electricity for compression and doesn’t release fumes. Instead, the machines apply 800 pounds of pressure to form bricks.
If you’ve ever pressed a waffle, you have a sense of how the machines work.
Essentially, laborers shovel sand and soil into a brick mold and then add some concrete — no more than 10% of the total mixture. A lever is then pulled and then out pops a brick. A standard machine can produce around 800 bricks per day. Once pressed, the bricks are set out to dry and stabilize for 21 days, and then they’re able to be used in construction.
Since the machines are so small, they can be transported across the country far easier than the massive trucks required for traditional construction. And because they’re affordable, ordinary people can buy them on a supported payment plan to start their own local enterprises.
Build Up Nepal helps every step of the way by providing training, maintenance, and general support for quality control.
“The micro entrepreneurs are really useful for the economy in the country, because they will have an earning of their own, and they can create jobs for 10 to 12 people in the surrounding area,” Shrestha said.
As the model expands, Nepal’s housing crisis is being addressed one brick at a time. Since the earthquake, around 125,000 houses have yet to be rebuilt, Shrestha said, leaving an unknown number of people without adequate shelter.
A major reason for the slow progress has been the country’s rampant poverty.
Nepal is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than 25% of people living on less than 50 cents per day and more than 5 million people who are undernourished, according to the Borgen Institute.
Saving up enough money for a home is hard when any additional income needs to be spent on food for survival. Build Up Nepal provides financial assistance to people without the means to pay for a home, and for the broader population, their homes cost up to 40% less than market value.
But the low cost isn’t the only incentive for prospective buyers; the bricks and their interlocking design create durability, meaning the homes can better withstand natural disasters such as earthquakes.
Shrestha said that Build Up Nepal gives people a chance to earn an income at home so they can be with their families instead of traveling abroad to work and send home remittances. Between 2008 and 2017, an estimated 3.5 million people left Nepal to work far away, often in dangerous circumstances.
While the flow of migrants helps to bring money into the country, it also fractures communities; women, in particular, face tough choices around migration, often having to find work as domestic laborers or in the service sector abroad.
Build Up Nepal wants to help women achieve financial independence, a cause very close to Shrestha’s heart.
When she was 18, she was forced into an arranged marriage that severely restricted her freedom.
“I had ambitions beyond staying at home and cooking and cleaning, but I was not allowed to step out of the house,” she said. “I divorced my husband at an early age, and struggled as a single mother for years. It is a socially discriminating environment, where women did have to fight.”
Eventually, she managed to get a bachelor’s degree in English literature and then a master’s in business administration. She then tapped into her nascent entrepreneurial drive to start two businesses that focused on empowering women, but she still ran into discrimination and systemic gender barriers.
“It’s difficult because you’re not taken seriously or heard because you’re a woman,” she said.
Shrestha worked hard to turn her deep cleaning company, Shine Cleaning, into a profitable enterprise that has helped women achieve a decent standard of living. She’s shown that women can succeed on their own terms, but she understands that she couldn’t have made it this far without a network of support.
Shrestha believes deeply in principles of community interdependence and mutual uplift, in the idea that a rising tide can lift all boats. That’s why she’s raising funds to buy oxygen tanks for health facilities in Nepal and planning to use the prize money to support entrepreneurs affected by the pandemic.
“Generosity has been a family value since I was a girl — it doesn’t end with just one program or just one event,” she said. “Whoever comes to me asking for help, I have never returned anyone empty-handed, whether it’s financial or interpersonal.
“I needed a lot of help to get where I am, and I cannot forget that. If I am in the other position to help right now, I’ll do whatever I can do within my means.”