Dhiraj K. Shah will never forget the moment.
“I was sleeping, and my wife saw it in the news and read me the headline,” he said of being awakened to learn of the massive earthquake that struck his native country of Nepal April 25 of this year.
“It was a life-changing moment for me,” said the 30-year-old Shah.
A telecommunications engineer, Shah was winding up a research project in Lisbon, and had already started looking for a further such assignment.
“I was doing my research on 3D video compression but I had really started to lose motivation due to lack of challenges in the work environment,” Shah said. “I was more interested in doing something to make people’s lives better but at which I could also make a living.”
‘I knew I had to go back’
“When the earthquake struck, I just knew I had to go back and help my country,” Shah said.
His response is the Kathmandu-based startup Shah Hemp Inno-Ventures (SHIV), which for now is focused exclusively on using Nepal’s abundant hemp fields to grow the raw materials for a mass-scale home-rebuilding initiative.
“Hemp has been used in some form or the other in Nepal for ages, but the hemp industry is still in a very primitive stage in the country because of lack of proper technical infrastructure and unclear laws around the hemp plant,” Shah noted.
The SHIV startup happened very quickly. Having researched hemp since 2004, Shah thought it might have the potential to rebuild the homes of middle-class Nepalese who likely would be squeezed out of relief programs coming through NGOs and governments.
“Their own savings aren’t enough to build a proper house again but with hempcrete we’re offering them an affordable solution,” Shah said.
Hemp community moral support
After talking with European hemp building veteran Steve Allin of the International Hemp Building Association, Shah was encouraged. “Steve and the hemp community showed a lot of support and made me feel that this project can work. “It was soon after that I decided to move back to Nepal,” Shah said, his courage bolstered by his wife Nivedita’s encouragement.
“I always wanted to do something with hemp but construction was never a focus, considering my educational background,” Shah said. “But when the earthquake hit, hemp for construction in Nepal started making a lot of sense.”
The task of rebuilding Nepal’s housing stock is daunting. The quake and its aftershock on May 12 destroyed as many as 600,000 homes and 45% of Nepal’s UNESCO cultural heritage sites while taking 9,000 lives and injuring 23,000 in the nation of 26 million. Economists have estimated that rebuilding Nepal’s economy will need an international effort over the next few years that could exceed USD 5 billion, or about 20 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product.
Nepal’s hemp potential
Yet hemp, which grows in the wild in Nepal, has a total potential yield of 3,000 tons annually enough to build 100,000 homes of 100 sq m that SHIV has already designed, theoretically priced for now at EU 15,000. Most importantly, those structures would fare better during earthquakes, along with being healthier and environmentally friendly, Shah notes.
For now, Shah is bootstrapping his startup with personal funds while working on creative business arrangements with suppliers and talking with other funding sources.
“Nepal is a trading economy, so the cost of everything really goes up in the supply chain,” he said. He also considers going for crowdfunding, noting that there are people who have the urge to contribute to his country’s earthquake relief but don’t know any reliable channel, indicating another potential financing source.
But finances weren’t foremost in Shah’s mind at the conception of SHIV. “Seeing my friends’ and other people’s houses crumbled, I just felt I had to do something, and we can,” Shah said. “I’ve always believed if you dedicate yourself to something and sincerely want it to happen, that you’ll find a way.”