COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — In April 2015, “a magnitude 7.8 earthquake” rattled the country of Nepal. The catastrophe led to 9,000 casualties, crumbling almost all of the surrounding infrastructure. The earthquake led to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes, leaving the impoverished people of Nepal without shelter or resources to help them get back on their feet. As a social business, Build up Nepal stepped in to address these issues.
Bina Shrestha is a Nepali entrepreneur who was inspired to help her country recover after the 2015 earthquake. Shrestha and her husband Björn Söderberg decided to join other humanitarians in reconstructing homes for Nepali people who could not afford to rebuild their lost homes. But, to Shrestha, providing struggling Nepali people with homes was not enough.
“There were no jobs and [citizens]could not afford a new house,” Shrestha says in an interview with The Borgen Project. “We realized that the only way to rebuild on the scale needed in remote villages is to empower the locals to build by themselves using local materials. We interviewed several families, all of them were dreaming of living in a safe brick house. But no one could afford it.” As a solution, Shrestha began Build Up Nepal with the objective “to create long-term economic development in rural Nepal where people are often forced to migrate because they cannot find work.”
A Nation in Peril
Before 2015, many people in Nepal were already living under the poverty line. According to Global Hope Network International, “only 46% of the population has access to basic sanitation” and access to clean water is limited. Additionally, quality education is uncommon and the literacy rate stands at around 65%. Estimates indicate that the 2015 earthquake pushed close to one million Nepali people under the poverty line. Not only did the earthquake destroy countless homes and surrounding infrastructure that communities needed to function but it also destroyed much of the land that Nepal relies on for agriculture and agricultural income. As such, the rebuilding and recovery process was going to be an arduous one.
Shrestha’s Life Story
Shrestha understood right away the extent to which families in Nepal needed help, especially the need for women to obtain financial independence. When she was just 18, Shrestha was forced into an arranged marriage. “I had ambitions beyond staying at home and cooking and cleaning, but I was not allowed to step out of the house,” she tells Global Citizen. “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.” After her divorce, Shrestha obtained a bachelor’s degree in English literature and a master’s degree in business administration. She then became an entrepreneur, starting two businesses.
Setting the Foundation
Since Build Up Nepal’s beginnings, Shrestha has dedicated all her time to aid in the recovery of the most hard-hit and overlooked areas of the country. The organization provides the most optimal assistance by employing the members of the community to bring about long-term stability and growth in impoverished communities.
Build Up Nepal also ensures that it does not destroy the surrounding environment during the rebuilding process. The organization uses low-cost, environmentally friendly building materials. So far, Build Up Nepal has rebuilt more than 4,500 homes throughout Nepal, thanks to Shrestha and her humanitarianism. The Build Up Nepal website outlines its impact. Build Up Nepal works with “250 entrepreneurs and communities,” creating 2,500 employment opportunities in the process.
For the construction of the homes, Build Up uses what it calls Interlocking Bricks, which “are produced in the village using sand, soil and 10% cement enabling poor families to build disaster-resistant homes at low cost.” The specific brick-laying technique that the organization uses has already reached more than 300 Nepali villages. “With our technology (Compressed Stabilized Earth Bricks), [Nepali people] can build small houses at 20-25% lower cost than fired bricks, cheaper and better than any charity organization can manage.”
The process of rebuilding homes across Nepal has not been entirely smooth and simple. To start with, Shrestha explains that it is always a challenge to make a “lasting impact on poor villages” where so many factors are contributing to the villagers’ lack of income. Each factor, such as poor roads, corrupt politicians, alcoholism and lack of employment, presents a barrier on the path to progress.
Build Up Nepal also faced a common hurdle for businesses after only a few years of operation. The hurdle in question? Money. “One of our big challenges was the money drying up for reconstruction,” says Shrestha. “Initially, after the earthquake, there were lots of funds flowing in for reconstruction and rebuilding work.” However, the aid could not sufficiently cover the reconstruction of 800,000 ravaged houses. Build Up Nepal needed a solution for funding or else it would not be able to build any more houses.
“After the first two years, we decided to shift our model away from donor-funded projects toward working a social business directly with rural entrepreneurs and communities,” Shrestha and Söderberg tell The Borgen Project. “Our core focus is now to support local micro-entrepreneurs to start small construction companies in their village, make eco-friendly bricks and build low-cost houses.” The couple states that the change in direction has been a struggle but it has also led to more employment opportunities, greater sustainability and more efficiency.
In 2021, a Build Up Nepal staff member nominated Shrestha for the Waislitz Global Citizen Award. “I never thought we would win the grand prize!” says Shrestha. “But [I] feel very honored and hope this will inspire others to believe in their ideas.” She plans on using the $100,000 prize money to reach Build Up’s 2030 goal: “1,500 trained entrepreneurs, 15,000 jobs and 200,000 low-cost homes.” Additionally, Shrestha hopes to expand the business to cover all of Nepal and support even more micro-entrepreneurs in creating construction companies specializing in affordable and safe housing for impoverished people.
Build Up Nepal also has other goals for the future of the organization. “In the next five years, we aim to support 1,000 micro-enterprises and build 50,000 low-cost houses in Nepal.” In addition, the organization aims to “expand to other countries and replace polluting fired bricks.”
Build Up Nepal understands the impact of safe and affordable shelter on the impoverished communities of Nepal. A safe, clean, sturdy home is not only a fundamental right but also provides a chance for a family to escape poverty. “A house is the biggest investment” an impoverished family can make as shelter provides “a foundation for a stable life,” which is why the organization aims to make homes “affordable for all.”
– Riley Prillwitz
Photo: Courtesy of Build Up Nepal