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Can entrepreneurs in low-income housing lead the way in disrupting the housing sector?

Posted By Habitat for Humanity, Thursday, September 12, 2019
Updated: Thursday, September 12, 2019

Can entrepreneurs in low-income housing lead the way in disrupting the housing sector?

By Jennifer Oomen

Entrepreneurs have long looked at inherent, systemic problems and turned them into market opportunities. The recent surge in innovation in the fintech space is a perfect example of how entrepreneurs are creating innovative products that enhance the financial system. Moreover the scaling up of effective , efficient, client—responsive financial services opened new opportunities for thousands of customers in the low income segment.

This July fifty entrepreneurial engineers, impact investors, mentors and industry players gathered at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi to hear eight startup teams pitch their innovative ideas. This was the third iteration of Habitat’s ShelterTech Accelerator which is focused on entrepreneurs innovating in the low income shelter space first  in Mexico, followed by Kenya and most recently in India.

What these startups were pitching was a new way to look at an established industry—shelter. More than promoting their products and services, they were selling the viability and potential of shelter solutions for the low-income segment. A sector often forgotten in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, shelter also encompasses water, sanitation, materials, infrastructure, energy access, on-site project management, and finance, moving way beyond the traditional idea of walls and roof.

Like financial services, housing is also a heavily regulated industry, dominated by a limited number of established players.  And low income shelter is a sector ripe for disruption. Shelter is a critical sector for a country’s development and growth. In India, low-income housing markets require at least US$2 trillion of investment by 2022 to fulfill shelter needs. Not only is the housing construction sector a known indicator of economic activity, it is also a major source of income: three out of every ten rural laborers in India are in construction, employing millions of low income Indian workers.

What will it take for the industry to innovate and evolve? Thought leaders have been calling for innovative and disruptive new players that can steer the sector towards a reduced carbon footprint, providing more sustainable, less water-intensive, less extractive solutions. Large multinational companies and developers are slowly  innovating in response to this.  However, opportunities still abound for entrepreneurs to disrupt existing methods and tap the US$2 trillion Indian market with unique solutions.

Take Aditya Shukla, the founder of Saltech, a company that transforms mixed plastic and construction waste into construction products. As a fresh graduate in engineering, he was struck and appalled at the amount of plastic waste produced in his community in Gujarat, India, littered everywhere with plastic bottles. Now, Aditya is prototyping paver tiles and floor tiles out of industrial, construction and plastic waste. “This isn’t just about making a great paver or floor tile which can add value to a community, it was also about helping India deal with the plastic waste challenges to create something that adds value to people’s lives.” 

As it is often the case, there are market realities. Successful entrepreneurs will agree: the opportunity in the market is not only about coming up with a new product, but understanding the market needs, preferences, capacities and pain points. Being able to see through the complexities and find solutions that can address such market opportunities will help to evolve the industry.  They are able to take into account household’s main concerns, the costs, but they also bring in new elements, making them not only accessible—particularly through disruption in last mile distribution--but aspirational.

After more than 40 years of operations in over 70 countries globally, Habitat for Humanity created the Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter, an incubator of ideas and innovations to address the market’s most pressing gaps and opportunities. The Terwilliger Center aims to support bring in innovations into the affordable housing market to offer viable alternatives or complement what currently exists in the ecosystem. Habitat’s ShelterTech network of startups and innovators from global geographies are addressing the largest challenges and opportunities in the low-income housing segment. 

This initiative derives from the belief that low-income consumers play an essential role in building thriving economies, and their market inclusion has a direct impact towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly goal 11--sustainable cities and communities. Habitat and the ANDE network are bringing the ecosystem together this September to highlight the entrepreneurs working in this space , hear their pitches and provide them with ecosystem mentorship, investment and support to scale their ideas at the Asia Pacific Housing Forum Innovation Awards in the construction innovation category.


Click here to learn more about the "Celebrating Innovation: Shelter Innovation Pitch Night & Networking Reception" >>

When: Tuesday, September 17th, 2019
Time 6:00 PM - 9:30 PM
Where: The Campus, Grand Hyatt Erawan (Bangkok, Thailand)

Event details:


*Jennifer is the Associate Director of Market Systems & Entrepreneurship in Asia-Pacific for Habitat for Humanity’s Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter. She has spent the last 15 years working in the shelter space in three continents applying both a human-centered and systems-based approach to shelter market challenges. She holds a MSc in Urbanisation & Development from the London School of Economics. She lives and works in Bangkok, Thailand.

Tags:  accelerators  emerging markets  entrepreneurship  inclusive innovation  social enterprise  social impact  sustainability 

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