EconomyEditor's PickSheltertech startups building sustainability in Southeast Asia

January 23, 2023
Habitat for Humanity gathered over 130 affordable shelter practitioners and enthusiasts last Jan. 16 in a conference that discussed business opportunities that exist in the shelter innovation space and highlighted sheltertech solutions being developed by startups and scaleups. — Habitat for Humanity

By Chelsey Keith P. Ignacio, Special Features and Content Senior Writer

As various issues continue to confront the housing sector, being able to live in a decent and sustainable home remains hard to attain by the general public. But, through innovation, some startups are improving access to such housing.

Over a billion people lived in urban slums in 2020, according to the United Nations (UN). The slum formation in developing regions is rooted in the shortfall in affordable housing options for low-income households, lack of housing finance, fast-paced urbanization and poverty, among many other reasons. By 2030, the UN estimated that three billion people would be in need of adequate and affordable housing.

“The summary of this is that the housing deficit is increasing around the world and is increasing in our region,” said Luis Noda, vice-president for Asia-Pacific (APAC) at Habitat for Humanity, during a conference held by the said global nonprofit last Jan. 16 in Makati City.

Living in the APAC region makes one also twice as likely to be affected by a natural catastrophe, according to Mr. Noda, and such disasters often mostly impact families residing in subpar housing.

Mr. Noda also noted that in several countries, the average housing-vulnerable person, or a person that could become homeless, is a woman 50 years or older.

“Vulnerable families are not only shocked by unachievable mortgage and financial income requirements. They are also unable to afford high-quality and durable building materials,” he added.

Mason Tan, director — Impact Investing at Providentia Wealth, also pointed out that local housing developers in Southeast Asia mostly build homes for the middle and upper classes in urban cities, and not for the poor.

He added that climate change has worsened the urgency of social housing issues in Asia.

“Imagine how the lack of a proper place to call home is affecting every member of the family, not just physically, but also emotionally, mentally, and spiritually,” Mr. Tan said.

Given these housing problems and their impacts on the people, particularly in Southeast Asia, innovations in housing services have been developed by some startups from the region to address such needs. This kind of innovation, being products and services that seek to make affordable housing more accessible, is called sheltertech.

“Sheltertech finds its niche in gathering innovations that can scale, streamline, digitize, or disrupt traditional housing services and generate social impact. At the center of this ecosystem, sheltertech startups leverage housing solutions as drivers of economic growth and equality,” Habitat for Humanity’s Mr. Noda said.

Habitat for Humanity’s recent conference, themed “Building a vibrant and investible sheltertech community in Southeast Asia,” brought together several sheltertech startups operating in Southeast Asia to showcase their housing-related innovations. Entrepreneur leaders and investors also joined the event. The conference was co-organized with innovation platform Plug and Play, startup incubator Villgro Philippines, Impact Pioneers Network, and the Manila Angel Investors Network.

The innovators

Climate change and the lack of proper housing are endeavored to be addressed by Malaysia-based startup Affordable Abodes. In building low-cost homes, the startup utilizes kenaf plants to manufacture bio-composites. Affordable Abodes calls its core technology KENAFCRETE. These are prefabricated structural wall panels, which are lighter, faster to build with, and save costs.

With a vision of creating homes that could address climate change, Singapore-based BillionBricks have built net-zero homes in the Philippines and India. One of the features of BillionBricks’ innovation is a utility-scale solar roof, which then does not need a sub-roof.

“We benefit the homeowners by making homeownership about 20% cheaper in terms of direct cash back and free electricity. To the property developer, we provide an opportunity to upgrade your real estate assets to be ESG (environmental, social, and governance)-compliant. For energy partners, renewable energy assets are unlocked closer to where the power is needed,” said Denis Lucindo, the startup’s managing director.

Also building sustainable homes in the Philippines is the CUBO Modular. This Manila-based startup, according to its Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder Earl Forlales, seeks to address the challenge of building more houses fast without further harming the environment. CUBO’s modular house is built from engineered bamboo, which could be assembled in just a few days.

Beyond the construction itself, some sheltertech startups also developed services that people would need at home. In Cambodia, TapEffect is supplying clean and safe tap water to rural communities, which they could get at their own homes. By developing and operating its piped water systems, TapEffect seeks to address the lack of access to safe water in rural areas.

Social Light, meanwhile, brings connectivity to low-income communities. The Philippine-based startup does this by offering Wi-Fi to people in exchange for their plastic waste.

In Indonesia, Gradana provides a fintech peer-to-peer lending service focused on property-related financing. “We make it more affordable for people to get a more decent place to stay, whether to purchase, for renovating, or to renting,” Gradana Co-Founder Angela Oetama said.

Another startup aiming to address the housing shortage is My Dream Home. Based in Cambodia, the startup creates interlocking bricks, which are composed of waste materials and abandoned soil bought from local farmers. By using its interlocking bricks, My Dream Home enables less cement use and labor in construction.

Meanwhile, in Myanmar, Pounamu is doing bamboo design and construction, as well as providing services dealing with sustainable bamboo forestry and bamboo treatment.

Sampangan, another startup in Indonesia, seeks to address two problems concerning housing: the lack of affordable housing materials and the lack of construction knowledge among the people, which leads to structurally unsafe housing, said Co-Founder and Chief Product Officer Hana Purnawarman.

Hence, while a waste processing company, Sampangan attends to shelter matters by creating raw materials that could be used for building construction. For construction, the startup is currently focused on activated carbon and light concrete foaming agent. These products together could make carbon concrete construction materials.

To date, Habitat for Humanity has supported more than a hundred startups across six accelerator programs.

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