SI scholarship holder wins climate award for his work on sustainable housing

SI scholarship holder Jonathan Zepeda Villela is awarded the Cornelius-Ernström Group Climate Scholarship for his passion project Terraforma Inc, focusing on affordable and sustainable housing in developing countries. We spoke with Jonathan after the announcement of his scholarship.
Jonathan standing in front of an Swedish Institute roll-up.

Hi Jonathan, congratulations on receiving The Cornelius-Ernström Group Climate Scholarship, that must be exciting! Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to work on affordable and sustainable housing? 

Being a Honduran, I’ve seen first hand the dark side of the housing market and how inaccessible it is. Many houses are made of cheap metal that is hammered onto a wooden frame, which leads to a series of health issues as the metal will be rusting over time. When it was time for me to buy a house, I wanted to source my house out of something that was not metal or concrete as I don’t find it aesthetically pleasing. I also have an understanding for how concrete is sourced, how underserved regions mine their own land just to export this product as a raw material without getting any of the benefits. I wanted to find a different way, a way that I support, and I found rammed earth. Having worked in the real-estate market in the Americas, I was able to leverage my experience within the market to see if it was financially feasible for me to source my house this way. Long story short, I ended up not buying the house, I ended up here in Sweden instead.  

Jonathan outside in the snow.
Jonathan Zepeda Villela. SI Scholarship holder during his time in Sweden. Credit: Private

Yes, now you are here! You were awarded the SI Scholarship for Global Professionals in 2022 and you are studying a 2-year master’s programme in Knowledge-based Entrepreneurship at School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg. What was your motivation to study in Sweden? 

It’s hard to pinpoint one thing. My entire life was directed to Scandinavia. After researching I learned that this region in the world was leading in social innovation, value creation, entrepreneurship; the government being able to provide and the society being in consensus and driving things forward. And Sweden stood out for me, it had the most cultural values for me to absorb and really sparked my curiosity for how I could change things back in my home country. 

Entrepreneurship is believed by some of the greatest economists of all time, to be one of the biggest drivers of prosperity and economic growth – that is why I choose entrepreneurship as a programme. It really combines my experiences and values; it was quite a spiritual decision.  

With the support of your studies in Sweden you have been able to continue your passion project on accessible housing –  Terraforma Inc. Tell us a little bit about the vision of your enterprise? 

As a commercial agency the view and vision of Terraforma is not to conquer the world. It is to commercialise rammed earth, to bring forward the notion that housing can be beautiful, accessible and bring value to everyone in the value chain. There is a real environmental impact that owning a house involves. Constructing can emit up to 80 tonnes of CO2 throughout the entire process from sourcing the concrete to building and delivering the house to its final owner. The idea of Terraforma is not to operate in luxurious markets, we go to developing regions where people don’t have fair access to housing or credits. I want to bring the technology of rammed earth forward, which is an old technology, nothing new. We are not introducing a new element on the periodic table; we are just commercializing something that was used in ancient times. The great wall of China had rammed earth foundations, the Egyptians used it as well, many ancient cultures would leverage rammed earth because everything is sourced from the ground where you want to build your house. 

Mainly I am very curious to find areas where value can be created, so I founded Terraforma. As CEO, I want the technique to be publicly available and work with public housing to bring it to the market. Essentially, I want anyone who wants to build a rammed earth house to have a modern point of reference. My wish is that It’s a passion project that benefit beyond myself.

How has the education in Sweden supported you in realising your project?

It’s been a nice first year. I am very happy that I choose my master’s programme. The biggest shock and what is most fascinating for me is the level of freedom you have as a student in Sweden. You get the ability to create what you think add value but at the same time it can be stressful. I strongly believe that it is a good way of learning. It tests you if you really have an interest and passion in the subjects you’ve chosen. It’s a commitment and a sacrifice, but incredibly rewarding when you realise that it’s in the name of something you are so passionate about.   

Part of this study experience also has to do with how the School of Business, Economics and Law at the University of Gothenburg leads their programmes. We have a fantastic course coordinator, Ethan Gifford, who is so supportive and provides great guidance. I created the vision of Terraforma back in Honduras. Then through one of the courses in my master’s degree called Entrepreneurship and New Business Development, we were tasked to quite rapidly develop a business idea and I found that this would be a good opportunity to work on mine. My course coordinator then informed me of the Cornelius-Ernström Group Climate Scholarship, I applied with my vision of Terraforma and then went on to win a scholarship of 50 000 SEK. 

What a success! What would your advice be to those who are interested in studying in Sweden and applying for the SI Scholarship?

I planned to apply for the SI Scholarship as soon as I signed up for my bachelor’s degree and I knew I wanted a master’s degree. I started visualising it early and imagining how life would be in Sweden.  If it really aligns with your personal values and the value you want to bring to society and the world; what you hope to leave behind after your time on earth, then take the leap and try for it! It is a highly rewarding, life-changing experience. You will meet some of the most important connections of your life here. Good luck to all the applicants, I hope everyone gets the value out of this experience, because it is an amazing opportunity.