Poverty is a complex issue that the world is facing right now. Prasoon Kumar, an architect, was faced with the reality of injustice in his field of work and decided to do something about it. Billion Bricks, his non-profit organization which envisions the world where there is no homeless was launched earlier this month. Prasoon and Billion Bricks are here to serve people: the ‘underdogs’ that often left forgotten. Highlight of the interview:
Love Talk: Prasoon Kumar of Billion Bricks
Billion Bricks sounds really cool. Can you share to us a bit about this organization you founded, and the key people behind it?
Billion Bricks is a non-profit organization, which envisions a world where no one is homeless. We want to focus our attention on the 100 million people who are homeless in the world and the billion who live with less than $1 a day. These are the poorest, most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in the world. No matter how hard they try, they lack means and opportunities to emerge out of the vicious cycle of poverty. Anurag, CEO of my former firm, Space Matrix, is a co-founder and founding trustee to the organization. Snehal Mantri, who is Director of Marketing at Mantri Developers, Bangalore is the second founding trustee.
How did Billion Bricks come about? Can you tell us the story?
Billion Bricks has been in the making for very long, but the real boost came up in November 2012. I submitted my resignation and was called in to CEO’s office to explain the reasons and discuss my future plans. We got talking and I mentioned a few ideas. My CEO was interested and asked me to come back once I have a concrete plan in place. That’s when I did multiple mind maps, and developed the first concept for Billion Bricks. The concept is largely rooted in my work and experience as an architect. I have designed thousands of houses and apartments and came to realize that the number of people without houses is still not going down. I keep building houses for people who already have housing and never for the ones who don’t and nobody is building for them. That became the inspiration for Billion Bricks.
What is Billion Brick’s current project? Can you tell us a bit about it?
Billion Bricks is working on two homeless night and day care shelters in Mumbai for children between the ages of 6 to 17. We are collaborating with Salaam Baalak Trust and Bombay Municipal Corporation on the projects. We are excited at this opportunity as with these two shelters more than 200 children who are currently living on the streets of Mumbai will get access to education, healthy food, healthcare and a safe shelter.
Why based in Singapore? And why Mumbai for your first project?
I find it very significant that we are based in Singapore. It is probably the only city in the world, which has no homeless, and the home ownership is astonishingly high. There are tremendous lessons for other cities to learn. Anyhow, when we did some initial research, we learned that more than 75% of world’s homeless are in India and hence we started to look deeper into the country. Mumbai is one of the largest cities in the world where 60% of its population living in slums. Understandably, there are many who can’t be in the slums and are living on streets and pavements. While we don’t have the numbers for the homeless in Mumbai, but it was clear, that would be a relevant place to begin our journey.
How does Billion Bricks get its funding?
Billion Bricks is seed funded by our two trustees. We will be raising funds through regular campaigns for our projects. For our first shelters in Mumbai, I will be running the Singapore Marathon to raise funds.
What do you foresee as the solution to end poverty in the world?
I believe poverty is an issue, which has been made complex with the way we have created our economic systems. You are either part of this system or if you are not or can’t, you are poor. For example, agriculture produces essential food for our existence, but farming is a profession, which does not pay well, and most farmers are poor. We have created a social structure, which is highly skewed between the rich and the poor. One percent of the world’s richest people have amassed 41% of the global wealth while the bottom 70% have only 3% of the wealth. Isn’t that ridiculous and undemocratic? Not sure if I have the expertise to comment on how to end poverty, but in my opinion, a big change can happen once we rethink our economic priorities and systems which will enable the wealth to trickle. Organizations like Billion Bricks and thousands others, will work within this constrained framework to find creative solutions that can step by step improve the lives of the poor but not end poverty.
You’re an experienced architect, and have worked on commercial projects in the past. Why do you switch to non-profit?
On a recent project, I was designing multiple high-rise buildings on a single piece of land. Half of those buildings were part of a slum redevelopment, which existed on the site prior to this project. I learned that the minimum standards of design between the commercial and slum properties were different for space, light and ventilation. I found this wrong, as we can’t distinguish human requirements for minimum living standards based on their economic status. Can we say that poor need less sunlight than the rich? What I was creating was another slum but vertical and worse than the original one. This was the turning point.
What is your vision for Billion Bricks’ future?
At Billion Bricks, we want to be facilitators and enablers of design ideas that have direct positive impact on the homeless and people in extreme poverty. We wish to create an ecosystem where one day these innovative ideas will flourish and have a much larger impact than we can do alone as an organization.
What’s next? And how can we get involved and help out?
Before we dream big, we need to focus on our first step. Our next step is to raise the funds for our Mumbai projects and deliver them to our 200 clients who are waiting. It will be a life changing experience for them.
As I mentioned, we eventually would want to create an ecosystem for change. Hence, we would love to listen to any ideas concepts that people have. So, if you would want to get involved with Billion Bricks, contribute, or wish to pursue your dream with our support, do write to us at email@example.com.
Anything else you’d like to share to people out there?
Once we have done our pilot projects in Mumbai, we will be looking at other South Asian countries. We are closely looking at Indonesia and are gradually establishing links to come and work. We look forward to your support.
Show your support and love by signing up the pledge on Billion Brick’s website www.billionbricks.org or you can write to Prasoon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Text by S.L.C. & Prasoon Kumar
Photos by Guillermo Fdez Florez & Prasoon Kumar