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All of us may not be professional architects but we do have a basic idea about materials that go into building a home, and of the many components, bricks are possibly what we first think of.
But, did you know that bricks are not quite the most environment-friendly thing out there?
The process of making bricks in kilns releases harmful particulate matter (PM) which contributes to air pollution. “Moreover, conventional bricks are made by digging the earth or using soil. This sometimes strips the environment of the fertile top-soil which is essential for productive agriculture,” says 25-year-old Rupam Choudhury.
An entrepreneur based out of Guwahati in Assam, Rupam is one of the three co-founders of a startup named Zerund Bricks. Being very well aware of the negative impacts of conventional bricks, Rupam along with Mousum Talukdar and David Pratim Gogoi (the co-founders) came up with an alternative.
The young innovators developed a patented Plastic Embedded Lightweight Brick using fly ash from thermal power plants, waste plastic, cement among others. About 70% of the bricks comprise of waste material and are made using electric machines instead of being fired in kilns, which eliminates the carbon emissions.
These bricks are 10 per cent lighter than conventional bricks—about six conventional bricks make one Zerund brick—which makes them super cost-effective. They are also offer 10 to 12 per cent more thermal insulation than conventional bricks, meaning that a structure made using these bricks would be cooler in the summers and warmer in the winters.
An idea that started out as a college project came to life when the startup was founded in September 2018. So, what value did the founders see in this idea?
“Infrastructural development is something that is booming right now. If you look at the Northeast, the region itself has so many projects that are ongoing and have been announced. But, it is important to understand that this development should not come at the cost of the environment. When we noticed that the green building sector was emerging at the time, we jumped in as this was a space we could very well work in,” says Rupam
Since they began their operations, they have catered to over 1000+ clients and have sold over 2.5 lakh bricks! These bricks have been used to build at least 50+ big apartment complexes among other buildings in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, and Nagaland.
From a College Project to a Business Venture
Co-founders Rupam, Mousum, and David met while they were studying Civil Engineering at Assam Engineering College.
Rupam recalls that in the seventh semester of their academic period, all the students in the class had to work on a project involving environment-friendly materials in civil engineering. It was Mousum who first got the idea of developing bricks using waste materials like plastic.
Although the seventh semester was over, Mousum continued to work on the idea to find the right proportion of each component. This was also the time when Rupam joined him in research and development to ensure the innovation could see the light of the day.
“One of the biggest challenges that we faced during brainstorming was figuring out how to process the plastic and how much of it to use it in the brick. We tried to melt it first but then we realised that that would result in carbon emissions. Then we tried grinding the plastic into powder but we couldn’t find the right machine. So, we customised one for ourselves where we could powder the plastic. Later, through trial and error, we came up with the final product in July 2018 which was also the time we graduated,” recalls Rupam.
Now, they had to make a choice between getting a job or start a venture around their low-cost, eco-friendly bricks. The trio, as we know, chose the latter.
While they were working on founding the startup David was instrumental in helping them build contacts. They also began to look for investors because they knew that functioning in this space would require capital.
“David was a hosteller and had a good alumni network. That really helped us with finding the right clients and investors. And, we found two investors based out of Assam just before we started our company in September 2018,” says Rupam.
They soon set up a 21,600 sq feet manufacturing unit in Azara in Guwahati and this marked the beginning of their operations.
Eco-friendly, Low-cost Bricks
For people to see value in their product, the trio quickly understood that they needed to incorporate features that would make the clients choose Zerund bricks over the conventional ones.
So, the first selling point became the cost.
“Since one Zerund brick is equal to six conventional bricks, the cost is lower. So, conventionally one conventional brick is priced at Rs 9. Multiply that by six and you spend Rs. 54 while one Zerund brick is priced at Rs 42,” explains Rupam.
Additionally, since they are lighter than conventional bricks, it is easier to transport them. The length of the brick is 500 mm, height 200 mm, and thickness is 100 mm and each brick weighs about 8 kgs. The strength of each of these bricks is anywhere between 4 to 5 megapascal (MPa).
Rupam also mentions that since the region receives plenty of rainfall, water can seep into structures and homes and damage walls. But, the water absorption capacity of Zerund bricks is almost 15 per cent lower than conventional bricks. This ensures that the walls of buildings and other structures don’t get damaged easily.
The fly ash, which is one of the components of the bricks, is sourced from the National Thermal Plant Corporation (NTPC) unit located at Kokrajhar in Assam. This is a by-product of coal that is burned in these plants to produce energy.
In addition to the Azara unit, they set up another unit in Bongaigaon in Assam this year in March. This has increased their capacity to produce and they can manufacture almost 10 to 12 lakh bricks in a year.
Each of these units has three main machines which include a mixer machine, two belt conveyors, and the flurry trolley which carry the mixture into the mould. There are about 20 workers in each of these units and a shift starts at 8 am and ends at 5 pm.
When it came to reaching out to clients, it was their network and contacts built up by David which really helped out. Other than that, their business was helped along by word-of-mouth—seeing the value of the product, their initial clients recommended their bricks, and thus, it went on.
However, there are some clients who discovered Zerund on their own. 29-year-old Mridul Das for example.
The local builder based out of Guwahati discovered Zerund bricks while passing through their unit several times while commuting around the city.
As a builder, he naturally got inquisitive and decided to pay a visit. After analysing the merits, he decided to start sourcing from them.
“These bricks are lighter and since we live in an earthquake-prone zone, as we build more floors, ensuring that we use slightly lighter materials helps in the safety of people who live in the lower floors,” he says.
Now, he has sourced over 18,000+ bricks which have been used to erect three building projects.
“I calculated my costs and found that these bricks are not only better but also cheaper. I have saved 20% of costs as compared to what I would’ve spent on conventional bricks. Also, since these bricks are bigger, the construction projects are completed by slashing half the time required otherwise,” says Mridul.
Overcoming Challenges and Moving Forward
The first challenge was that initially, being a new player in the market, they did not possess cash reserves like other companies.
“Our competitors could financially afford to provide their product on credit which we initially could not afford to do since we needed cash flow to function,” he states.
But, with investors and an increase in the number of clients, they are now able to provide their product on credit for a duration of two months.
Another challenge they faced was the inability to grab and take on bigger projects as their production capacity was low. But, the situation has improved now as they are currently operating out of two units.
The Assam based startup has also been recognised for its innovation. In Jan 2018, they applied for India-UN Fund in which they emerged as the winners out of 200 participants, receiving the award for ideation.
Then from December 2018 to April 2020, they were incubated by IIM Calcutta under the NIDHI – Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) programme. The mentorship and grant they received helped them in research and development along with scaling their operations.
Now, the startup has plans to set up five more units by 2022. They also want to expand the products in their portfolio by innovating tiles and paver blocks, by instilling the same sustainable values.
Rupam informs that they also want to set up small units in construction project sites as a lot of clients have approached them with such a requirement in the past.
“We aspire to expand our operations in the Northeast, and with our tech patented, we shouldn’t have a problem scaling our operations in other states as well. The end goal is to be able to manufacture each and every component of construction in an eco-friendly manner. We hope to fulfill this dream,” says Rupam signing off.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)