[Startup Bharat] Why these young entrepreneurs from Assam have tapped into waste plastic to manufacture eco-friendly bricks

Guwahati-headquartered Zerund sought to replace red bricks with its patent-pending lightweight bricks that use waste plastic materials as one of the raw materials.
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Brick kilns have for long been known for its extreme working environment. Although a vital part of any kind of construction, bricks and its manufacturing has been touted as one of the most dangerous with brick factory workers being susceptible to chemical, physical, biological, psychosocial, and ergonomic hazards.

The Indian brick kiln industry is the second largest brick producer in the world, next only to China, having more than 100,000 operating units and producing about 250 billion bricks annually, according to a report in The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI).

The large presence of this brick industry, however, increases the concentration of suspended particulate matter, sulfur and nitrogen oxides in the environment which directly and indirectly affects the quality of human life. Beside being hazardous to people, the brick kiln emission has proven to be damaging to plant life as well.

Wanting to solve this real-life challenge, three friends - David Gogoi, Mousum Talukdar and Rupam Choudhury from Assam Engineering College started their entrepreneurial journey with their venture Zerund in 2018.

What started off as a discussion in the halls of the Assam Engineering College, amid a final year project, now has the potential to transform the brick industry in Assam, and become a nationally recognised startup.

“In college, we used to always think of creating new products and values. When we were given our final year project, we had the financial aspect of the project in our mind. Hence, we never paid too much heed to getting more marks but more on making those academic projects financially viable. After graduating in Aug 2018, we carried our final year project forward into a business model and eventually registered our company Zerund Manufacturing Pvt. Ltd. the following month,” David says in his exclusive interaction with YourStory.

Zerund Co-founders L:R - Rupam Choudhury, David Gogoi, Mousum Talukdar

How is it different

Zerund bricks stands out because of non- availability of earthquake friendly and crack- resistant lightweight bricks, and it also claims to eliminate carbon dioxide emission of 42.64 MT per annum from red clay bricks.

Zerund sought to replace these traditional red bricks with its lightweight bricks embedded with recycled plastic. The team used materials such as sand, fly ash, organic materials, cement and water and moulded the mixture into eco-friendly bricks.

“Zerund Bricks is a patent-pending lightweight product and is different from other Autoclaved aerated concrete (AAC) blocks in the sense that we use waste plastic materials as one of the raw materials which promotes sustainability. Our bricks are water, crack and earthquake resistant, and we directly address eight Sustainable Development Goals (SDG),” says David Gogoi, Head of MarketIng and PR.

According to the Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS), 38 tons of plastic waste is generated per day in Guwahati alone, and 15,000 tons per day in India.

As a company, Zerund directly addresses the waste plastic issue by incorporating it into the product as a raw material and according to the young founders, its product is equally strong, durable and sustainable even though it is lightweight.

“We use multi-layered plastic along with fly ash, sand, water, cement, lime, gypsum and an organic chemical. Our bricks have a compressive strength of 4MPA(megapascal) with a low density of 800 kg/cubic metre and low water absorption of 7 percent,” claims David.

Product composition

Zerund bricks are bigger in size (500x200x100mm) in comparison to red clay bricks and weighs approximately 8kg per brick. Thus, one Zerund brick is equivalent to six red bricks of 3 kgs each, ie. 18 kgs. The eco-friendly bricks are much lighter, approximately 45 percent lighter compared to normal red bricks.

It claims to be around 15 percent more cost effective than normal bricks and is less pricey than AAC and red clay brick. The founders also claim that Zerund bricks reduce construction time by 25 percent, are easy to install, has thermal and sound insulation, are earthquake, pest, and fire resistant, and also have no weathering effect.

With 60 to 70 percent of the raw materials in these bricks from waste products alone, Zerund’s main cost of production is cement.

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.

Zerund Facility

Challenges and gaining traction

Being young and straight out of college, David, Mousum and Rupam had to deal with several challenges along their way - right from getting the approvals to production 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 to switch to our product,” claims Rupam who is also Operation and Production Head.

Started with a personal investment of Rs 2.5 lakh, the young college graduates ran into several obstacles in the form of funding and finance during the early days in September 2018. Luckily, two local investors keyed into their vision and provided funding to get them started.

YS Design team

“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,” the co-founders highlight.

Once the funding was sorted, there was no looking back for the enterprising trio. With a parent set-up in Azara, Guwahati, the Zerund team, in March 2020, set up another manufacturing unit in Bongaigaon in Assam.

Business model and revenue

Zerund’s target base comprises B2C customers (individual retail customers), B2B clients ( builder groups and contractors), and B2G buyers ( government organisations).

The company operates in three models - firstly, by manufacturing and selling Zerund bricks, secondly, through its mobile unit which has a capacity of 20 cum/day for cast in situ purpose, and lastly through its asset light model through which the team is aggregating and accelerating existing AAC plants by incorporating its own patent-pending technology.

In the near term, the startup plans to follow its asset light model in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Chattisgarh to increase its market share further. It is also planning to start some operations in Bhutan.

Currently producing 10,000 bricks daily, the startup aims to increase it to 50,000 by the end of this year.

According to the founders, as compared to FY 19-20, the startup has seen an increase of 8 percent in revenue in FY 20-21. From Rs 69 lakh in FY 19-20, the startup has generated a revenue of Rs 75 lakh in FY 20-21. With Rs 2.5 Cr in FY 21-22, the startup is projecting a revenue of Rs 11 Cr in FY 22-23.

The startup is reaching out to its potential customers through both online as well as offline mode.

“We have a good amount of regular traffic on our website, and we are also listed in various platforms like IndiaMART, Just Dial, Tata Business Hub etc. We also get a good amount of leads from our social media handles. Offline, we do local regular hoarding and billboard marketing in Northeast India. However, the best offline marketing has been “word of mouth” since our launch,” states David.

The brand caters to over 1500+ clients and has sold over 3.5 crores worth bricks till date.

Market size and competition

The brick industry In India has recorded considerable growth over the past few years, driven by rapid growth in infrastructure and construction activities.

According to a data published in Researchgate, 250 billion bricks are required per annum In India.

With increasing disadvantages attached to brick production in many states, and the encouragement of bricks made from fly ash, Zerund sees a lot of opportunities ahead.

This month, the startup raised an undisclosed amount in pre-Series A round from NEDFi Venture Capital Ltd. (NVCL). So far, the startup had raised a total of Rs 4 crore including the latest round.

Claiming to have no direct competitors in this sector, the startup is aggressively aggregating existing Lightweight Block Manufacturing Plants by incorporating its patent pending technology, and aims to take control over the entire supply chain.

Edited by Anju Narayanan

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