Coronavirus has devastated Nepal. But sustainable construction NGO Build up Nepal is helping communities bounce back. The organisation is working with a growing network of returning migrants, including many young people, to ignite a green economic recovery in the country. Founder Björn Söderberg explains more.
In March a strict five-month lockdown came into effect in Nepal, stopping almost all travel and economic activity. The country came to a halt. Companies closed. Millions lost their jobs. Hundreds of thousands of people returned to rural villages from cities in Nepal and beyond, often coming home to unemployment and basic, unhygienic housing.
The economic shockwaves of the crisis threatened the social business I founded, Build up Nepal. We empower rural entrepreneurs to start their own micro-construction enterprises, producing eco-friendly bricks and building resilient, low-cost houses.
I was asking myself how we would pay our employees their next salary, when we started seeing a glimpse of hope… soaring interest among returning migrants. Now these workers are seizing the opportunity on offer, sowing the seeds for a green recovery from coronavirus.
Well paid green jobs
For generations, Nepalis have moved to cities and abroad for work. The Gulf and Malaysia are common destinations. They work hard for several years, often under difficult conditions, saving up for a better future for once they return.
Now migrants are taking up economic opportunities closer to home. The number of new enterprises we support every month has doubled since the pandemic began. In fact, demand for our brick building machines is exceeding supply.
This is great news – Build up Nepal is on a mission to break the vicious poverty cycle in rural Nepal by creating well paid, green jobs in construction for poor families. In 2020, this work was recognised with an Ashden Award for sustainable built environment.
By using bricks made of compressed earth, we have enabled a growing network of micro-enterprises to build houses at 25% lower cost than using traditional fired bricks, and with 35-60% less CO2 emissions created. This is bringing jobs and green economic recovery where it’s needed the most – in poor rural villages.
We are focused on helping more women find work in the male-dominated construction industry. Laxmi BK from Dhading told us: “I earn 850 Nrs (£5) per day making bricks. It is hard work, but I can feed my two daughters, so it is worth it.”
Saraswati BK, a female entrepreneur from the same earthquake-affected community, says: “I have successfully established my enterprise and built 35 houses. Demand is growing among families in this area. Many women ask me how they can become independent earners like me. The enterprise is feeding more than 12 families in this area.”
Sustainable is cheaper
Build up Nepal aims to create a fairer world, addressing global problems such as deep-rooted poverty. But to do this its solutions must make economic sense – particularly as the country struggles with the impact of coronavirus. To be taken up in a developing country like Nepal, green solutions must be significantly lower cost than their alternatives. By using local materials, our bricks are significantly cheaper than carbon-intensive bricks fired far away from their final destination.
Poor families in Nepal will not pay more for an eco-friendly house (and not many people elsewhere will either). We have to make sure that sustainable solutions are cheaper and better, driving change and mass adoption at scale.
Lessons from an extraordinary year
Build up Nepal, and the communities we serve, face huge barriers. Deep-rooted poverty. Social problems. Lack of education. Roads washed away by monsoon rains. Not to mention corrupt politicians. But we simply cannot wait to solve challenges such as the climate crisis, or enormous global inequality.
We will continue to be part of the solution, empowering micro-entrepreneurs to create change by building on their inherent drive and potential.
Creating real change is hard. It takes time. You make mistakes and fail. But you try again and again. And when all logic tells you to give up, you persist, and slowly you start making a real difference. If you want to make a difference – never give up.