Cover Story: Dynamic Duo: 78 Aruna Kappagantula and Prashant Lingam The Bamboo entrepreneurs

Much before ‘waste’ became a friendly and an oft-used word, this couple, Aruna Kappagantula and Prashant Lingam put it to good use. They began with bamboo and moved on to tyres to recyclable plastic including polythene bags, PET bottles, chips bags, broken plastic and other plastic waste. They made abodes, furniture, shelters, tiles, belying the fact that anything can be deemed ‘waste’. But the journey has not been all that easy....

"Much before `waste’ became a friendly word this young couple had started working with it to create useful, everyday usable things. In fact they are popularly known as the ‘Bamboo Couple.’ So much so that they now have overseas orders!"

Aruna Kappagantula allows Prashant Lingam to talk and she speaks only when she has to add an emotion or value to what Prashant has to say. They live a simple life with their eight-year Old daughter Tanya, who is also happy visiting the workshop, near their house to see what is happening. “She does not make any demands,” says Aruna. Tanya is in Class IV at the Johnson Grammar School.

Prashant Lingam is the one who liaises with various parties, including the state government of Telangana, and is the face for this ‘small’ run-out-of-their backyard Bamboo House.

Much before ‘waste’ became a friendly and an oft-used word, this young couple had started working with it to create useful, everyday usable things. In fact they are popularly known as the ‘Bamboo Couple’ because they have been working with this for a long time and continue to work with it.

A long search

The story of how Aruna and Prashant got into the bamboo business is more than interesting. While their path was not easy, it definitely started on a romantic note. When they got married in 2006, Aruna was looking for eco-friendly furniture and could find nothing in Hyderabad, and the search led them to the Internet, which led them to North East India and they found what they wanted in Katlamara in Symna district of Tripura on the Indo-Bangladesh border, the land of bamboo, which is a grass.

They returned to Hyderabad full of ideas but they were way ahead of their time when it came to the local Hyderabad market. Since they were into experimenting, they built a complete apartment made of bamboo on the terrace of their house, and with the breeze blowing in, it seemed like an ideal solution. In fact it seemed like an answer to many problems, since one does not have to take permission from the Municipality or other authorities because this is a temporary structure. Bamboo is fire proof, environmentally friendly and it really gives an earthy look wherever it is built.

Today, Prashant has reasons to smile as his work has got international attention. The most lucrative deal so far has been a Rs.20-lakh farmhouse project in Pune while the lowest billing was a structure built for Rs.1 lakh.

While they must have been enthusiastic about the business, the family did not like the idea, but being young and starry eyed, the couple decided to go ahead. Though now their claim to fame is bamboo, it did not have a good beginning.

Parks and offices

Permissions have been given, but there is resistance coming from certain areas and the work is not taken forward and if at all some work is done, it is at a slow pace. The Miyapur Metro Station at Hyderabad has one office room made of both bamboo and plastic, and they have a public park which has been paved with the plastic tiles. It is an extremely slow business and the concept has not spread as much as the couple expected.

While on the one hand it does seem a good use of recyclable waste plastic, Prashant says, “It is difficult to sell. The moment I mention plastic, people get their mental blocks up. We have to constantly push this concept and sometimes we feel we are back to square one.”

“In fact the corrugated sheet is so tough that a truck can move over it and there won’t be a crack.

The other major issue being that there is a strong opposition from the ‘cement and concrete’ lobby. The reason being simple if the recyclable plastic tiles are used once, they do not need to be reworked upon for a couple of years and that obviously would cut into their profits.”

Success on a terrace

It was the beginning of a success story when they built a bamboo penthouse in Hyderabad, when a couple wanted a small structure. “They wanted a simple low-cost structure on their terrace,” says Prashant. In fact another bamboo structure made by another architect had collapsed, when Aruna and Prashant asked them for a chance. “We offered to build the structure for Rs.60,000 and told that if the structure stood for more than six months they could pay us,” says Prashant.

The couple paid them Rs.90,000 after the structure was built and this then was their first break after their struggle of seven years. More tellingly, people had begun to notice and the media played a huge role in their promotion, according the couple.

And that is how their life turned around. They went on to do a number of interiors of many big corporate houses like Google, Infosys, the US Consulate, etc., and their work was appreciated.

From doing no work for so long, now they were being overwhelmed by people loving their idea so much. People now wanted to build houses which were eco-friendly. The couple was happy since they could make up for the lost years.

“We were idle for three years, but after that we had no time to breathe,” says Aruna. After this project they have not looked back and between then and now they have built over 200 structures at Rs.500 per sq feet, including a couple of resorts, penthouses and farmhouses and people are still approaching them, as awareness on eco-friendly structures increases. Now costs have escalated and structures are built at Rs.700 per sq ft. In the last seven years they have built bamboo structures across Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and several other places.

Other than farm houses, tents, yoga centers, gyms, children’s study rooms, they also built 2-bedroom, 3-bedroom and 4-bedroom houses, even a three story house in bamboo.

The bamboo structure is constructed on a two feet thick foundation of brick and cement and is supported by metal frames. “The entire house can last you for 30 years,” says Aruna.

The procurement of bamboo though remains a bit of a headache. Firstly erstwhile Andhra Pradesh became two states and because of that they are facing difficulties in procuring bamboo. Earlier they used to get it from Rajamahendravaram (earlier Rajahmundry). Of the 136 species of bamboo, the one they use is available only in Rajamahendravaram and Visakhapatnam. Now, they use bamboo plywood sourced from Meghalaya.

"In the last seven years they have built bamboo structures across Hyderabad, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and several other places. Other than farm houses, tents, yoga centers, gyms, children’s study rooms, they also built 2-bedroom, 3-bedroom and 4-bedroom houses, even a three story house in bamboo."

Tough days

From enthusiasm to despondency did not take long, with the couple losing a lot in life. And the situation was only deteriorating, but the worst was yet to come when Prashant fractured his ankle while delivering a lecture at the Institute of Chartered Financial Analysts of India (ICFAI) Business School in Shankarpally. Here too one disaster followed another and Aruna fell seriously ill after the delivery of their daughter, Tanya. Both could not work and they had hit the nadir of their lives. Or so it would seem, in retrospect.

“For almost one-and-a half years, both of us were bed ridden. After I lost my father, my mother went into depression, unable to bear his loss and also because of the condition I was in. During this period, we lost six people from our family, including Aruna’s father,” says Prashant. They had to wind up the workshop and ask the workers to go back to their villages since their salaries were pending. Both Aruna and Prashant were bed ridden and in no position to start again.

In fact Prashant says, “The situation was so bad that we were eating only one meal. We were in so much debt and there was no one from whom we could borrow money.” And when people who had lent money to them started asking them to return it, they even thought of suicide, because they did not see any light at the end of the tunnel.

We never gave up

Those haunting days are over and the couple are in a cheerful space now. “Aruna and I are clueless how we went through those days with a small baby in hand. Maybe it was because we believed in one another and our dreams that helped us through those dark periods. We never give up and will continue to fight,” says Prashant. While being eco-friendly and discussing it is quite in fashion, the couple’s education qualifications of course would never have suggested that they would set up this small office and struggle and carry on with it in life.

Innovative use of plastic waste

Bamboo searching during honeymoon

Prashant graduated in Economics and Commerce, and though not one of the best of students, he went on to do his MBA at Osmania University, at the insistence of his parents. But he dropped out midway and did not land with any job. In 2001, a friend offered a business partnership in his company, Equation 28.6, which mainly imported LPG gas geysers, along with some other items from China.

Prashant came from a family of professionals, with his father being the Indian correspondent for Novosti, a Russian newspaper, and later joined the Communist Party newspaper, New Age, while his mother was in the HR department of a private company. But he did good at this business and was earning Rs.1 lakh per month.

Aruna had her Masters in Zoology but could not do her PhD though she was inclined to. Which is when they met on a matrimonial site and got married on 15th March 2006.

And then they went on their honeymoon and having decided on working with bamboo, travelled extensively across the country including parts of erstwhile Andhra Pradesh and Kerala to study bamboo. While they knew what they wanted to do with bamboo, they had to face stumbling blocks. Primarily they had to get bamboo from the North East even though it was being grown in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. But the Indian Forest Act 1927 made it virtually impossible to transport bamboo. Apart from dealing with rules and officialdom, they also had three separate state Acts to deal with. And all this led to the fact that no work was done till 2010.

Other than bamboo baskets, Hyderabad was not a learning place for bamboo work, and so everything had to begin from scratch and the internet was their best friend. They realized that bamboo houses were globally quite popular, but in India it was still an exotic idea. While on the net they got more confidence to go ahead with the dream project when a Planning Commission Report of 2003 showed that the Indian bamboo market had a potential of Rs.26,000 crores by 2015, and to top it, India was the second largest producer of bamboo after China.

But Prashant and Aruna had overlooked a very vital point, that the India Forest Act 1927 states that nobody can harvest or transport bamboo without permission from the Forest Department. There were many more complex central and state laws regarding bamboo use, and this was a challenge. The final blow came when in 2013 the Centre shut down the National Mission on Bamboo Application which was started in 2004.

The couple was up and about, but with nothing to do. They needed money and so after selling some jewellery they managed to get Rs.60,000 and soon saw a glimmer of hope. They got their first break after this.

Innovative products

Then they started using other waste items, including tyres —to recycle them and make usable items out of them. “We are now into recycled plastic and are creating tiles for pavements,” says Prashant and before one can raise a cross eyebrow he rushes to say, “We have conducted enough tests and there is no gaseous emission and surprisingly there is no warping of the material either,” he says, exhibiting the two variants that they have made for paving roads. One variant weights 200 gms and the other 300 gms. The weights of the tiles will vary depending on where they will be laid. If it is for a walking pavement then it will be of lesser weight and the heavier one will be used if there is vehicular traffic. In fact these tiles can be removed and re fixed when the water works department is at work and hence there is no fear of a gaping hole left behind. They have also made flooring tiles and these can be used as a substitute to vitrified tiles, especially in areas such as bathrooms and garden paths, since they are also non-slippery.

Prashant says they came up with this idea of using recyclable plastic which includes polythene bags, pet bottles, gutkha and chips bags, broken plastic and other plastic waste. “We have made roofing sheets, eight inches by three and a half inches and six mm in thickness, weighing 20 kgs and this is waterproof, leak and crack proof and sound proof.” There are also plastic logs, seven feet by four feet and in varying thickness. “Flat logs can be used for furniture and they are using it as GHMC (Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation) planters,” says Prashant.

"When they got married in 2006, Aruna was looking for eco-friendly furniture and could find nothing in Hyderabad, and the search led them to the net, which led them to North East India and they found what they wanted in Katlamara in Symna district of Tripura on the Indo- Bangladesh border, the land of bamboo"

Innovative use of Bamboo and other waste

Fame and fashion

Prashant is now a sought out person when it comes to talking about bamboo and they have live examples to show that it is a big success. They are also quite the hit when it comes to the lecture circuit.

The bamboo houses that Bamboo House India constructs, cost around Rs.2.5 lakh and come with all amenities, which includes fireproofing and waterproofing. These houses can last for at least 30 years, and support close to 100 to 150 livelihoods directly and indirectly.

B-schools across the globe have approached him and have done case-studies of his business model. “The major milestone was when the World Bank compiled my entire work as a case-study of the use of bamboo as an alternate construction material,” says Prashant.

Next Billion, a US Think Tank, listed him among the Top 100 Social Entrepreneurs of the world in March 2016. A quantum jump one might say from trying to sell the bamboo concept as an alternative, to now being sought out for building bamboo structures for people.

Ironically, though Prashant is a B school dropout and business schools in India did not welcome him earlier, today the ISB, ICFAI and even Harvard, Kellogg and Cornell, invite them to give talks on their ‘business model’ and ‘construction techniques.’

And in 2014, when the World Bank compiled their work, discussing their construction technique, systems they use, their effort to popularize an alternate building material, they felt it was worth all the trouble they had gone through. In 2015, they received an invitation from the United States State Department. Aruna went to the US as a State guest and landed at the White House to meet with the then US President Barack Obama.

It was obviously gratifying when the world recognized their efforts, especially after what they had gone through. “I dropped out of my MBA to be an entrepreneur, which was ridiculed by many people then, but today I give talks at various management schools,” says Prashant.

But they did not rest on their laurels and decided to step out of their comfort zone of bamboo, though that was how they got their name and fame and finally hard cash. But bamboo continues to be their mainstay.

Old tyre, new stuff

The couple then decided to work with tyres. The idea came when they saw a person burning a tyre near their house because he wanted to keep warm longer.

It took them some time to plan but finally they made a presentation to the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) on wanting to make furniture out of scrapped tyres. GHMC was inclined towards the idea and they made seats and benches out of tyres and drums.

The municipal corporation was the supplier of tyres because they had a huge scrap yard full of them. They made some stylish furniture out of tyres, and the Corporation is using it in some of the parks but soon it became difficult to get tyres, with a lot of stumbling blocks. But once they tasted success, the couple was ready to experiment and being full of ideas, soon shifted to plastic bottles.

Hyderabad has developed, with housing complexes cropping up everywhere, and Swaroop Nagar is quite close to Secunderabad and yet the bus service is not much to write home about. The couple soon realized that the people who waited for the public transport, right next to their own house had to face the vagaries of nature, more so during the searing summer months and the monsoons.

PET bottle shelter

So, they thought of building a bus shelter, abetting their house wall, which is lined with bamboo trees, using 1,000 PET bottles. They built an 8x4-feet bus shelter. While the frame of the bus stand is made of bamboo beams, the three sides of the bus shelter had PET bottles hanging, strung vertically with the help of a rope running through them. And since the PET bottles seemed to have withstood the heat of the summer months, this design has been replicated at other places too. The gaps between the vertical rows of bottles allow air to circulate, keeping the place slightly cool. But temperatures apart, it definitely gives a colorful shelter for those waiting for a bus. The bust stop next to their house has an aluminium-zinc roof now, because they had to mercilessly cut down the bamboo trees thanks to high-tension power lines running close by.

Though full of color and a tad playful, it cost the couple anywhere between Rs.25,000 to Rs.50,000 depending on the size of the bus stop. They color these PET bottles and use them to make fences, too. They also pick up oil drums to make dustbins out of them.

The couple faced a problem in this area too, since there was little knowledge or expertise on this subject. “Such constructions are popular in many other parts of the world, but not commonly heard of in India,” says Prashant. But the other stumbling block was procuring empty discarded pet bottles. Scrap dealers would only provide them ten bottles at a time and when they realized that they needed empty bottles, they hiked up their rates from Rs.1 to Rs.10. Yet they used to pick up huge quantities from scrap dealers. But now they have decided that they will leave it to the community to build their own bus shelters, while they will guide them.

They experimented doing other things with PET bottles including making one wall with the bottles in a horizontal position, while laying out another one vertically. The frame work was of bamboo and chicken mesh to keep the bottles in place. Plastering had to be done with a thick layer of mud and then with cement.

At first they used empty PET bottles but realized it was not a good idea as these bottles got crushed under the mud and cement after plastering. So they broke down the wall and filled the bottles with mud to help make them sturdy. And to check the strength of the wall, they mauled it, including drilling nails into these walls. Finally, a 15 by 15 feet room was completed using 7,000 PET bottles. And in spite of the hardship in finding and buying PET bottles, this construction works out a lot cheaper than the regular brick ones, is what the couple and their team found out. Though cement is used for plastering, it does not escalate the cost that much.

They experimented with these PET bottles and found that while a horizontal layout was comparatively much easier, with these bottles, among the various sizes, the two liter bottles were the toughest to handle because of their awkward size. Not to leave anything half done, they broke down this room after three years and found it was a difficult job. They had to take out each bottle from the wall and now they were stuck with all these bottles and wondered what to do with that.

Around 5,000 of these bottles were used to make a water tank, which is used to help cure the bamboo used for construction and other works.

In fact the idea of the bus shelter came up around this time. They then went on to make garden fences also. While it was colorful and made use of PET bottles, the major issue was finding a mason to help with the construction. Since the bottles were circular, plastering was a lot tougher than with rectangular bricks.

"B-schools across the globe have done case-studies of this business model. World Bank compiled their entire work as a case-study of the use of bamboo as an alternate construction material. Next Billion, a US Think Tank, listed them among the Top 100 Social Entrepreneurs of the world Entrepreneurs of the world Entrepreneurs of the world in March 2016."

colorful and cheap

According to Aruna, Hyderabad needs at least 400 more bus stops. And this alternative method obviously has caught the imagination of the powers that be, primarily because it is cheaper to construct them and they are colorful. The usual bus shelters on the main roads cost anywhere between Rs.3 and 4 lakhs.

Many of the bus stops will also have seats made of used tyres. In fact, they have used old tyres to make furniture. “The entire idea of using PET bottles for bus stops and tyres for furniture is to recycle scrap materials from government godowns,” says Prashant.

The recycling of plastic waste has won them several awards and recognition. They were one among the 30 Earth Keepers, a UN award for environment protection. A US company recognized their work as one among seven innovations with PET bottles.

Their bamboo campaign also got them selected to a social campaign titled ‘Heroes Without Makeup’ started by actor Randeep Hooda to inspire people to work for the betterment of the society which also gives due recognition to those who do something good for the society.

"We got a lot of radio coverage locally,” says Prashant. Empty PET bottles, in this case are making a lot of noise. But their most treasured compliment was that of Telangana IT Minister K.T. Rama Rao, who tweeted about their unique bus stop.

They were to start bottle collection centers, with the help and approval of the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Commission (GHMC), but the GHMC was not able to do it because of collection logistics and it was not working out for the scrap dealers.

In the case of waste tyres their perseverance and hard work paid off and their first assignment was to make furniture for a school building in Telangana, in partnership with the Confederation of Indian Industry. Now, another school, the Oakridge International School at Visakhapatnam is using tyre furniture for their school garden.

“Now there are many people looking to build with bamboo. They want farm houses or even something on their terrace," says Aruna. “They use it for yoga exercises or simply a place for some entertainment.”

Many for bamboo

They have built a 2,400-square feet conference hall on the terrace of the GHMC office at Khairatabad which is waiting to get inaugurated and the huge private hall at Infosys hosts parties and gatherings.

"The tensile strength of bamboo is even higher than steel," Prashant notes. This means that a piece of bamboo can take more tension and pressure exerted on it, than a piece of steel with the same thickness.

In 2017 the couple made a bamboo bicycle, which took them two years to complete and then they presented it at the Design Summit, Hyderabad which was held in 2017. Each of the bicycles was handmade at a cost of Rs.15,000 as opposed to Rs.5,000 for the regular cycle available in the market, but typically there were not many buyers. “We are planning to restart the cycle project and take it overseas. We need huge investments and are looking for investors,” says Prashant.

Truly this couple works with their heart and instinctively. While helping out a lot of people by giving them jobs, they are not working with any specific business plan. Now they are planning to scale up and at the same time, they are also planning to adopt a village near Bhadrachalam, where they will train the village people to make these cycles. Of course all this once the investment flows in.

Overseas demand

Meanwhile the government of Kenya has invited them to help develop local livelihood with bamboo. It is a one year program. “They have a lot of bamboo there and they want us to train people, teach them the technique and develop a business model for them,” adds Prashant. “It's a one-year program and our team will be stationed there training the locals.”

Weekdays are hectic for Prashant, but the romantic in him loves going on bike rides with Aruna and Tanya and watching old 60s’ or 70s’ movies on YouTube on Sundays.

And it astounds you when the couple says that their main focus was never to make any profit. They want bamboo to be recognized as an alternate building material. Says Prashant, “If bamboo gets recognition, the market will come to us anyway,” adding, “We believe that it is our duty to leave a better world for the future generation.”

By Lalita Iyer