Founder and director of My Dream Home, Kongngy Hav is building affordable solutions to housing for Cambodia’s poor, through the creation of eco-friendly, interlocking bricks. Writing by Joanna Mayhew. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

Tell me about your business.
At [social business] My Dream Home, we produce interlocking bricks that allow poor and middle-income people to build affordable, easy-to-construct and environmental housing. Building affordable housing for the poor [means that] for the poor we will build the same standard. The poor [shouldn’t] have lower quality.

Why did you start the company?
The Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction statistics say we need 1.1 million new houses for low- and middle-income people. And this doesn’t include rooms or houses for garment workers. This is also parallel to Cambodian demographics, because 70 percent of the Cambodian population is under 30-years-old, so in five to 10 years they will marry and need houses. If we look at the way Cambodia constructs, we use a traditional method that’s usually expensive and not environmentally friendly. Cambodian forests are now scarce, and there is land grabbing. Another factor is urban planning is not so clear, and when people try to migrate from rural areas to the city, they just illegally take the land, but this [does not] provide a good safety standard for them. NGOs are involved but there are less than 5,000 houses built by NGOs to help the poor, so it’s not enough. For the private sector, they target from middle class up. This is why I thought of creating a social business.

How do interlocking bricks work?
The system is similar to Lego bricks. People can use less cement to bond [them] together. We also design [them] smooth so people don’t need to plaster, and it saves time. Compared to a traditional brick, it’s more than two times faster to build a wall. With my brick, we don’t need high-skilled labour. When people buy [bricks], we provide short training about how to construct a home, so this also reduces the cost. The brick is resistant to strong wind, fire and insects. And it [functions] as insulation, so it keeps the temperature inside a bit cooler than outside. The bricks are environmentally friendly because they’re made from soil, and a little bit of cement and other stabilizers. And even though our brick is more expensive than traditional brick, if we calculate together the labour, cement, sand, time, we are more competitive. We can save in total 20 percent to 40 percent off the house.

Why are you passionate about this issue?
I used to live in a poor province, in Kampong Thom, near a garment factory, so I know how hard it is for garment workers. I couldn’t afford to rent and lived in my brother’s house. But compared to the garment workers, I was very lucky. Also, I was saved by a group of garment workers in 2009. When I was driving, I [crashed] and was unconscious. They helped bring me home. At that time my motorbike was very new, and I didn’t lose it. [Normally], when you get in accidents alone at night, people take any property. But that was a very kind group; I didn’t lose anything. That touched my heart. There’s still some [damage] on my motorbike. I want to leave it, to remind me to pay back those who helped me. When I touch the gear, I remember, and it keeps me going forward.

What is your background?
My background is in sociology and then I started my MA in development studies, so I don’t have any background in business. But I received training on social entrepreneurship in 2013, and then got a scholarship provided by H&M to study in Germany. In Cambodia, I joined [Social Enterprise Cambodia’s] Bootcamp (training course). It was very useful, [as] it connected me to different investors.

What’s challenging about running a social enterprise?
NGOs have support. But in my case, I started by spending my own money. [I went] two years [without] even a dollar’s income. I told my idea to many people, but no one believed in me. I spent around $2,000, so everything that I can save [on] clothes, food, entertainment [I did] for two years – I didn’t even visit a movie once. But for me, happiness is not about money; it’s about giving impact. My goal is to make my brick a national standard for affordable housing, and then start to increase more production and selling to the poor. If I’m just selling to the rich, I’m not happy. We talked with the ministry, because they want it to be a national standard brick. It’s not decided yet. But it’s good news they are now talking about my business.

What keeps you dedicated to the work?
Even though now I am a director of this business, I still don’t have my own house. I want to build my dream home and show people that they also can build. Cambodians earn around $100 per month. A house nearby Phnom Penh will cost $42,000, which means [it will take] more than a lifetime to earn. This also applies to me. Even though I went outside [of the country] to study, I don’t have money to buy a house – I just live in my parents’ house. But at least I have a shelter, compared to others. That’s why it inspires me. I will show the world that it’s not the problem of the others, but it’s also my own problem.