A newly married couple in Hyderabad hunts for a sofa. It leads them to a future they never imagined.
Meet Prashant Lingam and Aruna Kappagantula, the brains behind Bamboo House India which constructs eco-friendly houses - not made of bricks, cement and steel, but entirely made out of bamboo.
Besides promoting sustainable living, the houses also provide employment to several farmers and artisans, who are involved in the process, from growing the crop, to building the structure.
"Bamboo is a great substitute for wood. There is so much potential in it. While normal trees that are cut down take 20 to 25 years to grow, bamboo is one of the fastest-growing plants in the world, and can grow almost an inch every day," says Prashant, who founded Bamboo House India, with his wife Aruna.
"The tensile strength of bamboo is even higher than steel," Prashant notes.
This means that a piece of bamboo can take more tension and pressure exerted on it, than a piece of steel with the same thickness.
While the company has been making a name for itself locally, and across India, their journey was not always so smooth.
How it all began
"I married Aruna in 2006, and that's when the idea came up by chance. She wanted to buy an eco-friendly sofa set, and we looked all across the city (Hyderabad) but found nothing. We went on the Internet, and found that there was some bamboo furniture being sold abroad," recalls Prashant.
He goes on to add, "We really liked the furniture and began looking for it. After almost a month, we landed up at Katlamara in Tripura on the Indo-Bangladesh border, just to buy furniture."
Prashant says that the visit was an eye-opening experience, as the entire village was filled with bamboo and every person's livelihood depended directly or indirectly on it.
"So, we decided to help them, and came up with the idea of building bamboo houses. We saw that people were already doing it in places like Latin America, and began doing a bit of research," Prashant says.
However, the couple faced opposition from their families, who were sceptical of the proposal.
The duo was in their third month of marriage, and Prashant was making good money from a commercial venture he had started, while Aruna was planning to do a PhD.
Despite their families' disapproval, Prashant says that they were insistent, and decided to travel extensively across the country, from the north east, to parts of Andhra, Telangana and Kerala, to study bamboo.
"After a year or so, we had a basic idea. We leased out a small piece of land for our infrastructure in 2008. We also hired 20 artisans from Adilabad, who used to make baskets," Prashant narrates.
"However, we missed out something big in our excitement," he rues.
"The Indian Forest Act 1927 is an extremely complex Act, which makes it almost impossible to transport bamboo. The rules were absurd, and we also had three state Acts to deal with," says Prashant.
Soon, things started going downhill. The only way that the duo could acquire bamboo, was to transport it all the way from the north east, even though it was grown in parts of Telangana and Andhra.
Till 2010, no work could be done.
"At this point, the team was idle, because no one was buying our idea, and there was nothing on the ground for anyone to show. So, we decided to build a pilot home at the workshop. For the next few months, we kept building and demolishing. Since there was no one to guide us, we learnt from the Internet," says Prashant.
By the end of 2012, Prashant says that they had a debt of Rs 60 lakh, and all their resources were exhausted in travelling and transporting bamboo.
Things worsened in 2013 when the centre shut down the National Mission on Bamboo Application which was started in 2004.
"At this point, we lost all hope. Things went further south after I broke a leg, and Aruna developed post-pregnancy complications. We were both bed-ridden and it came to the point when we had no money to eat. We didn't know where our next meal would come from, and all the money we had, went for our child's care," says Prashant.
The couple then told the artisans team to go back, as they could not pay them. They asked the land owner for time. To add to their gloom, they lost six family members during this period.
"The only thing that stopped us from suicide was our child. We were depressed, but we didn't even have money for counselling. After our recovery, we decided to give it one last shot. There was no way to repay the debt, and we decided to sell some jewellery that we had. We got Rs 60,000 from this. In 2014, we got our first break," says Prashant.
The success story
"A principal of a Hyderabad school was looking to make a bamboo penthouse on top of a building, and he had given the project to an architect. However, the structure collapsed in three weeks," Prashant said.
"We had put the word out, and that's when we were approached. We told the principal to give us the chance. At that point, we were literally living with bamboo, and we did the project successfully," he added.
The company hasn't stopped since then, and Prashant says that they completed over 150 projects in the two years that followed.
"Initially, many people told us it was not a good business model. There was no benchmark available in this sector. We approached several civil engineering departments of colleges in India, but they were not willing to work on anything but brick, cement and steel. Today, we have become a teaching faculty in several engineering colleges across the country," says Prashant.
(Aruna addressing a session at BITS Pilani. Credit: Nirmaan Organisation)
"India is the second-largest producer of bamboo after China, but we continue to focus only on making baskets," Prashant observes.
The bamboo houses that Bamboo House India makes cost around Rs 2.5 lakh and come with all amenities. The makers say that the house will last for at least 30 years, and support close to 100 to 150 livelihoods directly and indirectly.
"This also creates jobs in rural areas, and prevents urban migration," says Prashant.
However, the couple wasn't done yet - they began another initiative last year.
"In 2016, we saw a person in the colony who was burning a tyre. We asked him why he was burning it, and he said that he had no other choice. So, we decided to do something, and it took us one year to figure it out. We presented the idea to the Greater Hyderabad Muncipal Corporation (GHMC)," says Prashant.
The idea was simple -- to recycle scrap, and make it furniture. The result was seats and benches made out of tyres and drums.
"The GHMC has to ideally discard their tyres after a certain number of years, and their scrapyard has an ocean of tyres. We said that we'll take it, and that's how the scrap furniture came around. We also shifted to bottles soon," Prashant says.
The team has managed to build water tanks, houses and even a girls' toilet at a government school, made mainly out of plastic bottles.
"Last month, we built a bus shelter near our workshop in Uppal out of scrap bottles. Hyderabad is short of bus shelters and contractors ask exorbitant rates. We built it for just Rs 15,000. The GHMC is very interested, as it will convey a good message about recycling," says Prashant.
However, Prashant still looks at Recycle India like a subsidiary project.
"Our main source of revenue is the bamboo houses, and we don't want to charge for the recyclable structures. We are planning to take up projects only for the government, and we have asked colleges to store their plastic bottles etc and give it to us for free, when we are doing a community project. We plan to use volunteers as free labour," he says
This year on March 23, the company launched a bamboo bicycle, at the Design Summit in Hyderabad, which it plans to sell as a substitute for the metal bicycle.
"We are also looking to scale up next year. We plan to adopt an entire village next year and are looking to export bamboo bicycles to America, where there is demand, as raw material and labour is cheap in India. We wish to make a change for the future," Prashant concludes.