A new generation of housing – the start-up story behind Chototel

Rhea Silva explains why, at 24, she set up Chototel, a social impact business that’s reimagining affordable housing – and why her age hasn’t held her back.

I’m a third-generation social entrepreneur. More than 50 years ago my great uncle started a cooperative bank in the slums of Mumbai, which is still there today. My father brought the first internet service to India. The living room at home in India was our de facto conference room, and from a young age I would listen to and participate in discussions that determined the way our family’s businesses were shaping up.

My first real taste of running a business was four years ago. I was studying in London, and my dad had a heart attack. I had to move back to India to oversee his business and so I was thrust into the role of helming a large and successful affordable housing company with almost 600 employees – most of whom were older than me and had worked there for decades.

When you face inevitable setbacks, it can be hard to remain relentless in pursuit of your mission

Rather than shaking things up, I just swam with the tide until I got a grip. It was a steep learning curve. The most important lesson I learned was understanding the difference between what’s meant, said and done by people sitting on the other side of the table during deals.

The best moment I had at my dad’s company was completing a 3,500-home building project and handing over the keys to customers. More than 70pc were first-time buyers who would never have been able to afford a home. This was an innovative small product, with most of the houses being less than 300sq ft and costing less than £10,000 to buy. The hope and anticipation was electric.

While running that business, I realised the opportunity to serve those who have been totally priced out the housing market was much larger than the affordable housing industry.

A side view of a Chototel design
A design for one of the Chototel projects in India, which is nearing completion CREDIT:CHOTOTEL

The first people to be priced out of urban rental markets are the lowest-paid – service workers – so I started looking into a way to deliver safe, clean yet basic accommodation for around 10pc of the average service worker’s pay packet. I believed that there was a way
to marry the rental and hotel accommodation models to achieve that.

While studying for my law degree, and having moved back to London, I came up with a building design that incorporated cheap, green and fast-build construction materials, sustainable energy sources, microbots and internet of things technology to keep build and running costs as low as possible.

The design meant that we’d be able to deliver a room that sleeps up to four people for just $2 (£1.60) per night, plus utility costs at 50 cents (40p) per person.

I shared the proposition with investors and raised £3m to build the first two projects, both in industrial areas in India, where the workers would otherwise be living on the streets or in makeshift dwellings. Those projects are about to be completed.

Chototel is based in London because we want to scale the business globally, with projects planned in the UK, UAE and Nigeria. Housing poverty is a global issue that requires global solutions. Our mission is to supply 1pc of the world’s demand for affordable housing by 2025, and build 5 million super-budget hotel rooms in the next decade.

My age (24) hasn’t held me back. I’ve used it to my advantage. Developers elicit very little goodwill or trust from their customers, vendors or financiers. I’ve found the sector to be very ambiguous and hard, but the advantage of being a freshly minted entrepreneur is that your stakeholders have a lot more patience and are supportive.

I’ve found that starting a business requires persistence and resilience of a different degree. I’ve learnt the hard way that anything that can go wrong, will. Our first build was delayed
by extreme weather conditions, for example.

When you face inevitable setbacks, it can be hard to remain relentless in pursuit of your mission. But, despite the challenges, I’ve found entrepreneurship to be an incredibly exciting way to live my life.

Telegraph: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/connect/small-business/new-generation-of-housing-the-story-of-chototel/