How to save the planet, one affordable house at a time – An Interview with Adaptation Entrepreneur Niels van den Berge
As a teenager, Niels van den Berge was an environmental activist, who spent his free time volunteering for organizations like Friends of the Earth and the youth wing of the Dutch Green Party. At 38, he is the Co-Founder of Easy Housing, a company driven by young entrepreneurs and a vision where everyone in the world has access to a safe, adaptable and sustainable home.
ith initial projects in several African countries, Easy Housing builds houses that are affordable and resilient to natural disasters, with an innovative, scalable concept that generates jobs for local youth. Built using sustainably sourced timber, the homes are circular and carbon negative, delivering both adaptation and mitigation benefits.
Niels recently delivered a speech at the Youth Dialogue on Adaptation Action: Delivering on the Glasgow Climate Pact, in which he urged the young audience from all over the world to be bold and demand adaptation action.
In an interview at the Global Center on Adaptation headquarters – the world’s largest floating office and another example of circular, sustainable architecture – Niels shared the history and vision of Easy Housing, and how it contributes to adaptation action.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Prefabricated building frames at Easy Housing construction site in Arua, Uganda (Photo courtesy of Easy Housing)
Why are resilient homes so important? How was the concept of Easy Housing born?
I worked with several NGOs and UN agencies in the development and humanitarian sector, usually focusing on climate adaptation, water and agriculture. My business partner Wolf, while living and working in Senegal and Uganda, and myself while living and working in Bangladesh and other Asian and African countries – we both saw a huge need for sustainable and affordable housing in emerging economies. That’s why we founded Easy Housing.
How can housing be a form of adaptation in action?
The homes from Easy Housing are designed to be flood resilient, so they are elevated above flood level. They are cyclone resilient, so they can withstand hurricanes and cyclones of up to wind speeds of 260 km/hour. They are also heat resilient. We applied the best passive house design principles, which for example means that we make use of shadowing ventilation. We apply bio-based insulation using papyrus stems to naturally cool down the temperature without using air conditioning or other energy-intensive ventilation systems. Another thing – but you hope that’s not necessary, of course – it’s a circular housing concept, so it can be relocated if a location becomes unlivable.
This week, you’re going to chair a session about affordable housing during GCA’s Water Adaptation Community Global Knowledge Exchange Event on Floating & Resilient Development. Can sustainable also be economical?
We are cost-competitive compared to concrete and cement bricks. So in that sense, we are cost-competitive with other improved housing solutions which are mainstream in most markets. We are not cost-competitive with traditional housing from mud bricks, for example, but our housing concept is safer, healthier and more durable.
We see that a lot of people at the base of the pyramid actually pay a lot of money for housing, but they pay loan sharks or slum lords. I lived in Bangladesh for almost seven years and people in slums often pay more rent per square meter than people in expat or diplomatic areas. That’s how high the prices per square meter are. Of course, the houses are smaller so in total they pay less, but relatively, they pay more and have fewer facilities. They spend a large part of their income on housing without growing assets so they cannot escape the poverty trap. We believe in helping people to build ownership, become independent from slum lords and loan sharks, and escape the poverty trap, even if that means that you offer some money, but with social interest rates, for example.
You have a diverse career and held many different roles. How did you come to focus on adaptation?
I was a member of Parliament when I was 26 years old, then I went to Bangladesh in 2012, where I worked with farmers on climate adaptation. Then I came back [to the Netherlands] in 2017, and in 2019, again became an MP. It’s not a linear process, but I went through an evolution in terms of thinking. When we zoom into climate change, I went through a process that I think a large part of the environmental movement did too.
In the beginning, I thought, it was a bit bad to think about adaptation because we need to mitigate, we need to stop the climate crisis. Back then we actually thought that we could still limit global warming to one degree. What I learned in Bangladesh when I was there, from farmers who lost their farms and villages that just disappeared after floods – in a way, it’s a very privileged position to say as a European, “We should not talk about adaptation, let’s talk about mitigation.” It’s very privileged because we are kind of safe, at least for the time being. I’ve seen the devastating impact in Bangladesh and Mozambique where people are not safe. So it’s not fair anymore to not talk about adaptation.
Easy Housing in Beira, Mozambique (Photo courtesy of Easy Housing)
Bangladesh has done a lot in terms of adaptation. Was it a great place to live and learn about it?
Yes, I think the Netherlands could learn a lot from Bangladesh in terms of disaster readiness and resilience, which is amazing, for a country with such limited resources, relatively compared to the Netherlands. When I was there, I saw the government evacuate one and a half million people in 48 hours because a cyclone was hitting the coastal area. Things went wrong in the process as well, very bad things happened. But a government being able to evacuate one and a half million people in 48 hours – I think we can learn a lot from countries like Bangladesh and Mozambique.
At the Youth Dialogue, you encouraged youth to stop making policies and just take action. That really struck me because I think a lot of youth probably feel that way. Is Easy Housing you taking action, taking matters into your own hands?
As a policymaker, I experienced that it’s so easy to become part of the system and to just become another person who is very good at talking and using the right lingo. What young leaders, including myself, should do is use their leverage, their position, and the momentum that young people have to be bold and demand action – to be like Greta Thunberg. We need more people like that.
In Easy Housing, different things come together for me. It’s working with local partners on building resilience in a sector, housing, where I think there are not too many good sustainable solutions yet. I come from the water sector where I see a lot of good things happening already. There’s still room for improvement, but there are so many governments, agencies, and NGOs working on water, sanitation and hygiene, and flood prevention. In housing, a lot needs to be done still, so I really found a niche where I think I can add value.
Easy Housing is a youth-led, youth-focused company that generates around 10 jobs per house. What do you do to engage youth in your mission?
In Mozambique, we partnered with Young Africa, an organization that trains young people to prepare them for the labor market. In our humanitarian project in the Rhino Camp in Uganda, we’re looking into opportunities to provide vocational skills training to focus on young people and female carpenters. So we do a lot to facilitate and accelerate youth engagement.
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