Tech talk: Housing for all

Published September 2, 2018
CEO Nabeel Siddiqui pitches his way to success.
CEO Nabeel Siddiqui pitches his way to success.

Imagine a house that you could just pack up and move between cities or countries. Sounds too good to be true? Not if you believe ModulusTech, a Karachi-based startup, which is claiming to offer exactly that.

To be clear, the house in question is not your usual double-storey bungalow with a backyard and verandah. It’s as simple as it gets — a one-room, flat-packed housing unit that can be assembled in a mere three hours. Just three hours? Hold your horses! Assembled in three hours, yes, but manufacturing a single unit takes a week.

The way it works is you place an order with the company, specifying your size requirements and all. Once the unit is ready, their team will install and assemble it on site, along with roofing as well as the fittings and plumbing. The standard 256 square feet model costs around Rs300,000.

In case you want something customisable — let’s say a bigger size or a fancy interior, the company claims to do that as well, though obviously the cost and time go up.

Set up by Nabeel Siddiqui, Yaseen Khalid and Muhammad Saquib, the company is primarily targeting the affordable housing market: the internally displaced persons, refugees, and low-end housing projects for the poorest of the poor. Currently there is a shortage of nine million houses just in Pakistan and ModulusTech is looking to make gains there. But that’s not all. “We want to mainly cover that segment but our product can be used in many other settings. Like if you want a separate study room, a servant quarter, or even tourist cabins,” says Siddiqui, the CEO of the company.

But ModulusTech isn’t just eyeing the Pakistani market. “It’s a global product,” he says. “There is a demand for affordable housing worldwide and we want to capture that. We are in talks with local and international NGOs to explore opportunities,” says Siddiqui.

The three were studying Civil Engineering at NED and decided to go big for their final year project. Plenty of money, stacks of research papers and hours of experimentation later, they realised that their invention was a hit. “The applications for Nest I/O were open so we thought to give it a try, otherwise we would have gone for Master’s. And to our surprise, we got in!” he adds.

How does ModulusTech fare up against other alternatives? Let’s break it down. In the portable housing arena, movable demand is largely catered by containers but Siddiqui is confident that his invention is far superior. “Containers are much costlier to buy and transport. On the other hand, we can fit 11 flat-packed units in a truck,” he claims, adding “plus there is no comparison in the energy requirements. In Thar, for example, we did a test project and our unit required one AC versus three for a container.”

And what about other similar products? There are a few players such as PortaCabins but it’s only IKEA that beats them at cost. ModulusTech says its advantage is that their homes take less time to be assembled. Whereas compared to concrete houses’ per square feet cost of $18 and above, ModulusTech is offering $11 a square foot. “Even our carbon footprint is 50 times lower,” claims Siddiqui. And that is also one of the company’s unique selling points: its environmental sustainability.

What about their business model? Currently it’s all direct sales due to the on-demand production nature so far but Siddiqui doesn’t plan to keep it that way. ‘We will move on to rent and lease options over time,” he tells Dawn.

There has been limited scaling so far due to high manufacturing costs. “In order to make money, we need initial funds so we can have sustainable production. The upfront manufacturing costs are substantial so we are unable to meet much of the demand. Even if they pay us 50 per cent in advance, we don’t have the remaining half” says Siddiqui, adding “but we have recently received some grants to keep us going.”

Grants? From where? Over the past two years, ModulusTech has been pitching at numerous conferences across the globe and has gained traction from the United Nations and other international bodies, winning around $40,000 in grant money.

But banking on grants is by no means sustainable which is why raising money remains a priority for the startup. “We have not approached any banks because we are looking for a partner” says Siddiqui. They are currently in talks with a local investor who has put their valuation at one million dollars. “Once an investor is on board, we can afford to take more orders and things will get moving,” the CEO says.

ModulusTech is not a typical tech startup though: their product is hardware, not software. And Pakistan doesn’t even offer the ideal landscape to conventional startups so how is it for the trio? “You’d think it’s harder for us but it’s actually a blessing in disguise. Many of our industry players aren’t aware of the new tech like artificial intelligence or blockchain but they can relate with hardware so we can explain our product relatively easily,” Siddiqui notes. Whether ModulusTech is able to make the most of a favourable scenario is for the rest of us to see.

The writer is member of staff:

Twitter: @MutaherKhan

Published in Dawn, September 2nd, 2018


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