ThinkChange Pakistan sits down with Zehra Ali, Unreasonable Fellow 2010 to speak about “Ghonsla”, an innovative enterprise that provides low cost and green insulation for the developing world.

Can you explain what Ghonsla does? How does your business model work?

Ghonsla uses bi-products from the paper industry to produce highly effective, low cost and green insulation for the developing world. Currently the insulation is installed as a false ceiling material under existing roof construction. The insulation reduces heating costs, decreases health issues caused by indoor air pollution, and increases summer livability. The energy savings from the installation pay back the costs over 2-3 years. Our vision is to increase energy efficiency through use of recycled materials while creating local jobs and operating as a for-profit company.Providing affordable insulation is not sufficient to address the scale of the problem. The main components in the supply chain need to be addressed- production, education, distribution and installation. For production we have partnered with one of the largest paper and packaging firms in Pakistan. For education and marketing, we have completed 2 pilot programs covering over 30 households, educating the communities on Ghonsla’s benefits and word-of- mouth marketing. In addition, we have built working partnerships with leading social organizations for community-based education and promotion and are now engaging architects, developers and building material suppliers. We have extended our initial distribution through partnering with institutional customers operating building reconstruction and low income housing programs, as well as local distributors to supply materials directly to customers. For insulation installation in communities we are working through networks of existing installers as well as developing training programs for local entrepreneurs to install insulation in their regions.

What’s the story behind your venture?

While I was doing fieldwork on housing conditions in the earthquake-affected areas of Pakistan (EAAP), I met a woman by the name of Bibi whose family had received 15 CGI (corrugated galvanized iron) sheets to build a home with a lightweight roof, since the collapse of heavy earthen roof was the primary cause of death during the earthquake. When I asked Bibi if she felt safer in her new home her answer was quite the contrary. She told me that not only was it unbearable for her to cook indoors during the summer, but it was also impossible for the family to sleep with the loud noise the rain made on the roof during the monsoon season. However, her greatest worry was whether or not the family would have enough wood to burn to keep the homes barely warm in the winter. After seeing Bibi’s plight and talking to other members in her community, who were concerned over the impact of increasing household fuel-wood consumption, would have on the health and environment, I saw that there was the urgent need to address the poor insulation of homes, especially with CGI roofs. It was during the ‘Developmental Entrepreneurship’ class that I took in the Fall of 2007, where I met two of my colleagues (Emmanuel Arnaud and Monica Le) and with the support of one of my Professors who had worked on low-cost insulation in developing countries, we came up with the idea of Ghonsla.

Who are the founders and managers of Ghonsla? How large is your team and how does it work?

Founders include Emmanuel Arnaud, Monica Hau Le, Mubarik Imam and me. Currently I am the CEO and Katelyn Donnelly joined a few months ago as the CSO/ CFO. We have a team of 5 people who are managing the production operations and also an additional team of installers we are working with.

How have you gone about fund-raising for Ghonsla? What are some of the challenges you’re facing and what advice do you have for aspiring social entrepreneurs?

We raised funds for our initial pilot through business plan competitions. However, since then we have not done any further fund raising as our focus has been on product development and optimizing our operations- activities for which we have been able to cover the costs through our strategic partnerships and bootstrapping. We are leveraging our existing networks as we build out our supply chain and sales channels. We have concentrated our efforts on initial customers who have large volumes and buying power . A business can not operate without the working capital and there will be no sales until the product can do its job right. So yes – be resourceful, constantly persistent and realize that 95% of the work is in the execution.

In 2010 you were selected as an Unreasonable Fellow. Can you tell us a little about the Unreasonable Institute and your experience there?

The institute was that point in my career where I needed to take a step back and reassess where I wanted to take Ghonsla. We already had two successful pilot projects and then it was time to start thinking big and position our activities to gain that momentum. At the institute I found the support and inspiration to do that and with my team back in Pakistan to streamline the production operations. The mentors, team and the fellows above all were instrumental in my personal growth as well as reinforcing Ghonsla’s vision. Nothing like being under one roof with such amazing people and also to have Boulder setting as a backdrop!

My departure from the institute coincided with the floods in Pakistan. Though I was not on the ground at that moment, I realized the tremendous need to build back communities in a way that is cost-effective, resilient and green.

Up till now, what areas (geographical) has Ghonsla primarily worked in? Have you received a favorable response from your target population? What are some of the biggest roadblocks you’ve come across (aside from funding)?

Since its inception in 2007, Ghonsla has primarily worked in Pakistan. We started our first pilot project in a remote community in Azad Kashmir, where we installed insulation in 12 homes and a school and monitored performance and tracked fuel-wood savings in a total of 30 homes with and without insulation. The feedback we got on our initial product was that it was effective how ever people would be more willing to pay for it if it looked better. So we went back to the drawing board.

We have learnt a lot since our pilot in 2008. Our product has changed so has our business model. The pilot project we have with UN-Habitat last summer in Islamabad provided third party validation for the cost effectiveness of our product.

Having spent a significant time on product development , we are now rolling our product out on into the market and also larger housing construction projects, especially those in the flood affected areas. We are excited about the momentum we have gained and look forward to the learning ahead of us.

What are your future goals/plans for the venture? How do you see it expanding?

Some of the goals ahead are increasing production capacity, working on financing programs to support retrofits in the low income and middle income market and diversifying our product line. Internationally, we hope to form strategic partnerships with other organizations operating with similar material and demonstrating the market case for using it as insulation.