WisBusiness: Hope Shelter Manufacturing helping impoverished countries with basic needs

By Kara Turtinen

For WisBusiness.com

A year and a half ago, a small segment of Ubela Holding Company in Milwaukee was making portable houses to be placed in backyards for grandparents to live. The so-called “granny houses” could be put up and taken down quickly. One of the engineers, Hensley Foster, saw the need for products like these in developing countries.

Today, that idea has turned into a company called Hope Shelter Manufacturing. It markets and sells portable structures to meet the basic needs of millions of impoverished residents of Third World countries and victims of natural disasters. The company’s products are safe, inexpensive, eco-friendly, easy to construct and easy to move.

“There are more than 2.6 billion people who lack access to basic sanitation and water,” said Brydie Hill, director of partner development. “We saw a market for our products in developing areas if we could make them affordable enough.”

HSM products use material not seen in other building products. It’s a foam core with a cement coating, which makes the products lightweight yet durable. By using the foam, the material is two to three times stronger than a cement block and can be molded into a multitude of shapes.

The first products HSM is offering are squat toilets, which can be purchased for around $25 in U.S. currency. The cost of production is held down by utilizing in-country labor.

HSM also joins with charitable organizations that already supply money and personal services in the affected areas. These organizations pay for products and oversee construction and use of the products on-site.

By joining with NGOs and charities with a local presence, HSM hopes to offer a competitive advantage in providing a turn-key solution to the most basic needs of the population served.

“Success in these situations is dependent on how well we work within the culture and economic structure of their community,” Hill said.

The company currently has test projects in 10 countries in Africa and South America, and has had inquiries from organizations serving more than 20 countries in Africa, Asia, and Central America.

Sales of the products began in July 2011, and the first delivery will be to Kenya this fall.

“The squat toilets have been selling like hot-cakes,” Hill said. “After we found the price point and saw that the products were being accepted, the sales and marketing went off the chart.”

With around 800 units sold initially, HSM decided to move the manufacturing directly to Kenya, and they should have new squat toilets by the start of the year.

Also in January, the company will begin introducing water cisterns in Kenya. The structures can hold 23,000 gallons of water, with most of it being harvested rainwater. The cisterns will come complete with a pump and purifying system so residents can drink the water directly from it.

HSM anticipates that once a product is constructed in these countries, others will follow in what may be a community consisting of sanitary facilities, cisterns, schoolrooms, community rooms, clinics, and ultimately residences.

In the future, they also hope to use unskilled labor to erect these low-cost structures on-site. The manufacturing kits called “Factory in a Box” will provide jobs leading to improving quality of life and boosting the local economy in these impoverished communities.

“The market is so large for our products,” Hill said. “There are so many people in need that the demand is almost exponential, and we can’t help them all at once.”

The company is seeking about $750,000 in an investment round. It has previously raised about $150,000. Hope Shelter Manufacturing was just recently designated as a Qualified New Business Venture by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., meaning investors in the company can qualify for a 25 percent state tax credit.

“By investing in our company, you’re not only bringing jobs to Wisconsin, but you can feel good by knowing you are making a difference in people’s lives by helping communities grow,” Hill said.

— Turtinen is a student in the UW-Madison Department of Life Sciences Communication.