Three months into their marriage, a couple in Hyderabad, the capital of southern India’s Telangana state, went on a shopping spree to find an eco-friendly sofa. It was an endeavour that changed the entire course of their life.
Prashant Lingam and Aruna Kappagantula travelled more than 15,000 kilometres and finally found their dream sofa, made from bamboo, in Katlamara village in the remote north-eastern Indian state of Tripura, close to the Indo-Bangladesh border.
The couple had an epiphany — a deep connection with the village that was lush with bamboo fields where tribal artisans, living in abject poverty, were creating impressive bamboo products. Moved by the miserable state of bamboo crafts and the diminishing number of artisans, the duo decided to set up a social enterprise to make bamboo houses. This decision led them on a life-altering journey spanning the last 11 years. They battled huge debts, serious illnesses, kidnappings and depression, but were determined to launch Bamboo House India.
Since 2006, the business has built nearly 200 bamboo houses and their work has earned them a fitting title — the “Bamboo Couple of India”.
“Even today, I cannot explain what happened to us when we reached Katlamara,” Lingam tells Weekend Review. “Our decision was quite unreasonable, something like falling in love. We had gone to buy furniture and then we decided to make bamboo houses, a concept we had seen some time back on the internet.”
Their main objective after their visit to the village was to promote bamboo — a greener alternative to wood, plastic, steel and iron. “The other strong motive to start Bamboo House India was to use bamboo as an economic driver to provide sustainable livelihood opportunities to the tribal and rural people there,” Kappagantula says.
The first step for Lingam and Kappagantula was to research bamboo as they had no experience nor exposure to products made from the plant. Lingam — a management college dropout — was a successful entrepreneur with an import and distribution business, and Kappagantula was a zoology graduate.
“For almost a year we travelled to various areas in India that grew bamboo to understand the whole process of bamboo cultivation and product manufacture,” Lingam says.
But why bamboo?
During their research, the couple found that although India has rich bamboo cultivation, furniture and houses made from bamboo are not as popular in the country as they are in other parts of the world. They also found many advantages of using bamboo. “Bamboo is a grass that grows back within two to four years, a perfect substitute for cutting trees. The cost of building a bamboo house is also 50 per cent less than a regular brick and mortar house, plus bamboo houses have a life span of 30 years,” Kappagantula says.
Positive figures from government bodies about the potential of bamboo boosted their confidence. According to a Planning Commission of India report of 2003, the Indian bamboo market was predicted to be worth Dh14.9 billion by 2015. The report also predicted that bamboo could help more than 5 million people living below the poverty line.
But Lingam and Kappagantula still faced many hurdles. The first challenge was to find the right kind of construction methodology. After some hits and misses, they started following a technique used by people in Latin America of using bamboo boards for walling, flooring and roofing.
“Male members of the artisans’ families in India cut bamboo poles from the forest,” Lingam says. “Women convert these poles into bamboo mats. These mats are sent to a factory to be made as bamboo boards. These boards are then shipped to Hyderabad. The whole process of making a house of around 500 square feet takes around 30 days.”
As part of Bamboo House India operations, they set up an office and a workshop in Hyderabad and brought in 20 tribal artisans from Adilabad, Telangana. Each artisan was paid a salary of Rs15, 000 per month, and the backend mat-making team in northeast India were paid Rs200 for each mat.
But soon after they started their enterprise, they realised that in their enthusiasm to make eco-friendly houses, they had overlooked an important government regulation that restricted the transport of bamboo. According to the Indian Forest Act of 1927, bamboo is classified as a tree, not grass, and that puts several restrictions on the harvesting, transportation and trade of bamboo. “But we took it as a challenge and decided to go ahead with our plan,” Lingam says.
They found out that according to the Indian Forest Act of 2006, forest dwellers and tribes had complete rights over bamboo in their traditional forests. This allowed the tribes in Katlamara to harvest bamboo. They also followed government regulations to transport bamboo from Tripura and Assam to Hyderabad.
As the region was riddled with insurgency, they had to go along with a military convoy. The next setback for them came when Lingam and Kappagantula witnessed a bomb blast just 50 metres away from where they were staying, in Guwahati, Assam. Lingam was also kidnapped twice by tribals, in Tripura and in Manipur.
“The local tribesmen feel threatened by the presence of unknown people but once they understood that I was not a threat to them, they released me unharmed,” Lingam says. “All these incidents put immense emotional stress on us. Our families too started pressing us to stop the venture.”
They launched a website — bamboohouseindia.org — and opened their first showroom in their house in Hyderabad. They felt they now had everything in place — a backend team to build bamboo houses and a showroom to market them.
Their confidence was again shattered despite having infrastructure in place as they found no customers who wanted bamboo houses. “People were unaware of bamboo houses and were reluctant to take the risk to build them,” Kappagantula says. After six months, they had exhausted their funds and had started borrowing money from relatives and friends. As they were paying the monthly salary of their artisans even without any sales, they incurred a debt of Dh340,000 in a span of three years.
“We became the laughing stock of society,” Lingam says. “We had no customers and no money.”
The tough times continued for the duo. “I broke my ankle and Aruna was bedridden for almost a year and a half because of post-natal complications.”
The couple had no option but to wind up their workshop. “It became difficult to put food on the table — we had only one meagre meal in the afternoon. We developed severe depression and suicidal tendencies. What stopped us from taking any extreme step was our innocent child,” they say.
With time, as their health improved, by 2013 they decided to give their venture one last shot by selling all their jewellery and valuables. “We got Rs65,000 and invested all the money back into the venture,” Lingam says. As luck would have it they got their first order around the time when an elderly couple in Hyderabad, who wanted to build a low-cost bamboo structure on their terrace, approached them. “We revived our workshop and put all our efforts into building this structure.”
This bamboo house proved to be a great success. It was not only noticed by people in the adjoining localities but also got the couple widespread media coverage.
“From no work for five years we went on to make 150 bamboo houses in the next two,” says Kappagantula, who was also invited by the US State Department in 2013 to interact with experts from the social sector.
Some of their landmark projects have been constructed at the US Consulate, and at the Google and Infosys campuses in Hyderabad. Besides two-and three-bedroom houses, they have also constructed gyms, yoga centres and farmhouses. One of their most expensive projects has been a Dh114,000 farmhouse in Pune. “We have now completed around 200 projects across India but our major focus has always been south India due to the geographical vicinity to our workshop. We can now say bamboo houses have finally arrived,” Lingam says.
Today, Bamboo House India has provided livelihood opportunities to 75,000 people in India both directly and indirectly. Prestigious business schools such as Harvard, Kellogg, Cornell and the Indian School of Business have made case studies on their project.
“We are invited by Business Schools and various other institutions to share our entrepreneurial journey. We share our experiences with the younger generation through our talks so that they can take some leads and do not commit the mistakes that we did,” Lingam says. In 2017, he was invited by the government of Kenya to help develop business models in bamboo that provide local livelihood opportunities.
The couple have now set up Recycle India, and the couple hope to tackle urban scrap and waste issues. Some milestones in this initiative include aesthetically designed seats made from discarded tyres, and world’s first recycled bus shelter made with tetra pack waste, plastic tyres and drum waste.
“We are not engineers or designers. It was only our passion and never-say-die attitude that motivated us to face all the challenges and bring a change in society,” the pair say. Just like the resilient bamboo plants they promote, Lingam and Kappagantula too are determined to keep growing.