A Week of Unreasonable Propositions: Day #4 – Better roofs for the poor

What makes the Unreasonable Institute Finalist Marketplace www.unreasonableinstitute.org so compelling that I can’t stop writing about it? Well, for one thing, it’s a contest – and I love a contest, especially if it’s something I get to vote in – and couldn’t win if my life depended on it. For another thing, it introduces me to a bunch of young people that are doing such amazing things, it makes me feel hopeful about the future. Zehra Ali, head of Ghonsla is one of those high-impact social entrepreneurs that I really, really want to see go to the UI’s business incubator — and then watch her ideas fly.

Zehra is 24 years old, Pakistani, a recent graduate of MIT in Mechanical Engineering and Technology & Policy, and fixated on the idea of creating housing and energy solutions for the global poor. Her first line of fire: corrugated galvanized iron roofs that cover the homes of about 1 billion people in the world.

Zehra with village women & her insulation

CGI-covered homes are hot in the summer, cold in the winter, and require lots of wood to heat in cold climates like Pakistan, contributing to deforestation and indoor air pollution that is quite toxic. Yet after the devastating earthquake in Pakistan in 2005, 8.5 million sheets of CGI were distributed to rebuild homes. Zehra has a better idea.

A home with fresh Ghonsla insulation

In 2007, working with faculty at MIT and her team in Developmental Entrepreneurship, Zehra developed Ghonsla (meaning “nest” in Urdu). It’s an R3 insulation material that is made of readily available, renewable and waste materials like straw and resin, is 30-40% cheaper than other insulating materials in Pakistan, and will pay for itself in one year in firewood savings alone. What’s more, it can be produced, distributed, and installed locally, giving a boon to the Pakistan economy, where Zehra is already partnering with Packages, Ltd. (a large Pakistani corporation), microfinance and social organizations to organize financing, technology promotion and outreach to other communities.

The village middle school, before insulation by Ghonsla

Her pilot build of 12 houses and a school in an earthquake-affected village in Northern Pakistan allowed Zehra and her team to test the Ghonsla product and monitor its impact on income, indoor air pollution and wood consumption – as well as the families’ comfort. She came away sobered by the inadequate and energy-inefficient housing conditions she saw, filled with ideas for further R&D to improve the product and its market potential, and completely inspired by the resilience of the people of Pakistan and their eagerness to turn adversity into opportunity if given the slightest support and access to resources.

In the school she helped insulate, the students wrote on the newly insulated walls that were keeping them warm through the bitter cold: “Simple living and high thinking is the motto of a great people.”  For great people like Zehra and her team, my $100 today goes to Ghonsla. http://www.unreasonableinstitute.org/finalists/index.php?action=about_pro&proId=171 Live long and prosper!