It was pictures of the Syrian refugee crisis that stirred 25-year-old Yaseen Khalid to rethink his whole reason for doing business.
As an environmental engineer in Pakistan, the images triggered memories of the 2005 earthquake and 2010 floods in his own country.
Yet knowing that the right to housing is recognized by Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Khalid decided that he had to do something.
“Being a Pakistani citizen, I had witnessed the plight of disaster-stricken people myself after natural disasters,” he said. “It was clear to me that a large number of displaced people around the world needed housing.
“I realized that my business partners and I could do something about this—and so we set out to use our technical skills and engineering knowledge to design houses that are relocatable and can be set up in minimal time.”
Today, Khalid and his colleagues have created ModulusTech, a social enterprise which provides low-cost, flat-packed housing materials which can be assembled in as little as three hours.
UN Environment Director of the Economy Division, Ligia Noronha, said: “A smart and sustainable home, which responds at the same time to everyone’s right to an adequate standard of living and bears lower life-cycle environmental impacts, represents an innovative alternative to business-as-usual approaches to construction. It bears witness to the pivotal role played by young entrepreneurs and the private sector in the sustainable development agenda.”
As a changemaker and regional finalist in the 2018 Young Champions of the Earth competition, and winner of the UN Environment Asia-Pacific Low-Carbon Lifestyles Challenge, we spoke with co-founder and Chief Technical Officer Khalid to find out how far they have come since founding their business in 2017.
What issues did you set out to address when you started ModulusTech?
At ModulusTech we are working to negate the two biggest constraints surrounding traditional housing construction: time and cost. A major problem after any emergency is the large influx of displaced people in a short amount of time. The lack of time and the cost of making new houses means that many are forced to live in camps and shelters in poor living conditions, with inadequate shelter from harsh environmental conditions. Such conditions, along with insufficient sanitation in camps, can cause disease and health epidemics. That’s why we set out to create low-cost housing that can be assembled quickly.
What challenges have you faced along the way?
Challenges are an essential part of the entrepreneurial journey. We set out strict criteria around the product we wanted to build. There was no precedent for our work and so we had to design everything from scratch. Since we were building the initial prototype out of our own pocket, we also had financial constraints. After the successful launch of our product, we hoped to secure more orders and earn revenue. But clients were sceptical about the innovation, and we had to go months without orders. It has taken us one-and-a-half more years to raise our seed investment. It has been a challenge to skip our salaries but it has helped us get to where we are today.
What has kept you going during the hard times?
Apart from the motivation from friends, family and co-founders, the level of impact our product has the potential to achieve is what keeps me going. We want to achieve the vision we set out with.
Where in Pakistan and elsewhere is the technology already being deployed?
Around the world, companies are gradually shifting towards pre-fabricated building construction. However, very few firms have tried to develop houses that can be transported over long distances. Since our launch, we have completed multiple projects, including the expansion of a non-profit school, an installation of hygienic washrooms on a construction site, sustainable employee accommodation and offices for an organic farm. These projects have earned us US$90,000 in revenue and generated 25 jobs, while saving an estimated 1,350 tonnes of carbon emission and promoting energy-efficient and sustainable construction. We estimate that these projects have impacted at least 300 people and saved energy for our clients.
What’s your vision for the future?
Our vision is to grow our start-up into a multibillion-dollar social enterprise and spread our technology around the world. In 10 years, we hope that ModulusTech will be the name for sustainable, affordable housing and structures of any kind. We are working with entrepreneurs, governments and humanitarian agencies to find other sectors where our structures could uplift communities economically, for the development of under-privileged regions.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs starting out on their journey?
Never be afraid of the competition. If you are solving a real problem, you will always have a space in the industry. Secondly: take risks. A founder who is not willing to fail, hardly ever succeeds.
The Young Champions of the Earth regional finalists are out! Winners will be announced in September. Stay tuned - and why not apply in January 2020? The Young Champions of the Earth Prize is sponsored by Covestro.