Buildings have become somewhat ubiquitous. Everywhere you see people, some form of a building is nearby. For the safety of our environment, it has become necessary that the materials and overall process that goes into building or manufacturing building materials are environmentally friendly.
Earlier, in regions like Assam, less efficient materials like sticky rice and duck egg were the norm when it came to building materials. Then came the era of bricks and cement, and that was when the revolution began. They began with red clay bricks but soon realised that even though those were strong and provided stability, they absorbed too much water. This type of brick was then improved upon, and the era of lightweight bricks began. However, the process of making these bricks in kilns release harmful substances to the environment that has done so for many years.
In response to this, three innovators; Rupam Choudhury, David Pratim Gogoi, and Mousum Talukdar, began a startup called Zerund Bricks. Using this platform, these three entrepreneurs have sought to replace red bricks by inventing lightweight bricks embedded with recycled plastic. Using materials such as sand, fly ash, organic materials, cement and water, they created a mixture which they moulded into a brick and have gone ahead to patented the product.
These entrepreneurs have taken conventional bricks a step further with their invention, correcting every defect in the previous design. Their new brick model is environment-friendly, less pricey than AAC and red clay brick, lightweight, reduces construction time by 25%, easy installation, and has thermal and sound insulation, earthquake, pest, and fire resistance, and no weathering effect.
Their main cost of production is cement. 60-70% of the raw materials are waste products alone. The fly ash, one of the primary components, is sourced from the National Thermal Plant Corporation (NTPC) unit located at Kokrajhar in Assam. This is a by-product of coal that is burned in these plants to produce energy.
The length of the brick is 500 mm, height 200 mm, and thickness is 100 mm and each brick weighs about 8 kgs. The strength of each of these bricks is anywhere between 4 to 5 megapascal (MPa).
In addition to the parent set-up in Azara, Guwahati, they set up another unit in Bongaigaon in Assam in March 2020. This has increased its manufacturing capacity. Each of these units has three main machines which include a mixer machine, two belt conveyors, and the flurry trolley which carry the mixture into the mould. There are about 20 workers in each of these units.
The trio believes that it took a few real-life experiences in their entrepreneurial journey to get them to where they are at the moment. “Real-life situations have always helped us to gain that true entrepreneurial spirit. It happened when we were in college, we used to always think of creating new products and values. When we were given our final year project, we always had the financial aspect of the project
in our mind. Hence we never paid too much heed to get more marks but more on making those academic projects financially viable. That final year project eventually became our business and a full-fledged industry,” they said.
What began in the halls of the Assam Engineering College as a final year project has become a nationally recognised startup that has changed their lives forever, with the potential to transform the built industry in Assam, the whole of India and, perhaps, the rest of the world.
As a new startup trying to gain ground in the industry and improve their clientele, these entrepreneurs have had to deal with several challenges along the way. They put it plainly, “You must always face new challenges in your entrepreneurial journey. Not a single step is easy – right from getting the approvals to production and down to sales. It is even more difficult when it’s virgin ground.”
“People rarely believe in a new product. Hence it becomes a bit tougher in the early days to convince people, but the properties and economics of the product are too attractive for the customers not to switch to our product”, they add.
At the beginning of the startup in September 2018, the co-founders faced issues relating to funding and finance. Luckily, two local investors keyed into their vision and provided funding to get them started.
“From December 2018 to April 2020, we were incubated by IIM Calcutta under the NIDHI – Entrepreneur in Residence (EIR) programme. The mentorship and grant we received helped a lot in research and development along with scaling the operations,” they note.
To overcome the challenges the industry has so generously presented them, they have had to take a few preemptive steps to give their product an edge. Firstly, they had to ensure it offered more value for money when compared to other types of bricks. They also ensured that their bricks weighed a lot lighter than other lightweight bricks. These are competitive components that have driven sales and patronage since they launched.
The brand caters to over 1000+ clients and has sold 1.1 crores worth of bricks in the initial 1.5 years of their business. These bricks have been used in building residential apartments, commercial complexes, and government organisations among others in Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, and Nagaland.
“Recently we raised venture capitalist fund of around Rs 3 crore. We are also collaborating with various other larger organisations for a larger benefit. For example, we are working with NRL for R&D, Vedanta Group for expansion, and Shapoorji Pallonji for a joint venture.”
Speaking on their plans on expanding their company and taking it further than it is currently, the co-founders had this to say, “We are starting a new manufacturing unit near the Bhutan border which will be fully automatic and engage in large scale production. We started by producing just 7000 bricks every month. This new unit will eventually have more than 1,50,000 brick production monthly. Also, we are planning to launch fully into other states in the country very soon.”
Considering that one Zerund brick is the same as six lightweight bricks and still offers lighter weight for transportation, it is safe to say that having startups like Zerund is the future of building materials in the country. In a world where the effects of climate change are fast ravaging lands and societies, and where green initiatives are desperately needed, such products that promote environmental sustainability in the world should be duly celebrated.