Ava, you want to take the market in Bangladesh by storm with your new building stones. What gave you this idea?
In 2014 I travelled to Bangladesh, where I noticed a lot of disadvantages in the traditional way of making bricks. It's actually incredible, but there are about 8,000 brick yards there, producing 18 billion bricks every year. The problem is that the production methods hail back to the 18th century and are consequently extremely inefficient.
They devour 3.5 million metric tons of coal and two million metric tons of wood each year. Bangladesh is dependent on coal imports from India, and is experiencing dramatic local deforestation on its own doorstep. In the capital city of Dhaka alone, 40% of particulate matter pollution is caused by the old brick yards. This leads, year for year, to hundreds of deaths. Not to mention the often miserable working conditions in the factories and the bad quality of the conventional bricks.
What's so special about your bricks, what advantages do they offer?
The new bricks are based on a method developed in the '50s. In principle, they are earth-cement bricks known as CSEBs (Compressed Stabilised Earth Blocks): earth is mixed with cement and water, compressed and then air-dried. This saves resources and reduces CO2 emissions by 75 to 90%. The finished blocks are much more robust than fired bricks and can even be pressed into the widest variety of shapes that interlock with each other and withstand exterior forces better. Houses built of conventional bricks are often not disaster-resistant, and are easily damaged during earthquakes and cyclones.
Can you describe a CSEB press?
A manual block press is slightly larger than a washing machine and costs about €3,000. With a team of seven you can produce roughly 1,500 earth blocks a day. In two or three days, you have enough blocks to build a house.
What are the greatest obstacles for your work?
There are different challenges, one of them is the price. Twenty per cent lower costs compared to conventional bricks is quite nice, but not enough to really make a safe and sound house possible for more people. Because of the widespread poverty here, most people can't afford any kind of bricks. They live in corrugated iron huts. Apart from this, many of our customers are concerned about the quality of the new building blocks. They think that CSEBs are a heap of earth that will dissolve in water. There is still a lot of educational work to be done in this respect.
You must assert yourself as a young entrepreneur in Bangladesh. You're operating in a male-dominated sector. That's not always easy, is it?
You said it. In some respects, the country is very conservative. It is most unusual that a woman of 29 is not yet married, drives a motorbike and manages a production site in which mostly men work. Luckily, however, the Bangladeshi people often react with respect and interest. I also meet with approval and support.
Where do you see your company Building Pioneers in ten years?
Absurd as it may sound, I hope that in ten years, Building Pioneers will have become superfluous in Bangladesh because many small and large providers will have copied our idea and are supplying the market with good and low-cost CSEBs. The advantages are really obvious. They have already been used to build thousands of houses all over the world. It's a fantastic product that we have to bring out of the niche and onto the market.
Where do you see yourself personally?
The nice thing about social enterprise is that we don't break our backs to get rich, but rather to solve problems. Perhaps my success can motivate or inspire other young people. For me, it's about finding an entrepreneurial solution to urgent problems. This can be more important, for example, than pursuing a stellar career in a big corporation. My work lies outside the natural comfort zone, but it's worth the effort for this goal.
Ava Mulla is the founder and president of Building Pioneers. She studied at the University of Applied Sciences in Munich and as a young entrepreneur is committed to optimising civil engineering solutions in developing countries. She attended the 2015 Resilience Academy.
CB, 30 November 2015