Bruce Leep was a bit shocked the first time he walked through the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya, where as many as 1 million people live in shacks made of garbage or tattered, leaking plastic tarps.

"That was an eye-opener," he said, "to see all the kids and women and men, barely existing."

Leep, 43, a down-to-earth Bozeman home builder who sometimes wears a Hawks baseball cap, had traveled to Kenya last summer, bringing a possible solution - a new kind of shelter. It's made in Montana and called a Habihut.

The Habihut is big enough for a family, strong, durable and, by American standards at least, inexpensive. People who know what they're doing can put one up in an hour.

Today Habihut is a little startup company with big dreams.

Leep and seven partners are working hard to create a business building Habihut kits that can be shipped around the world, to help slum dwellers in Kenya or provide better shelter for earthquake victims in Haiti.

Partner Jim Ogburn, 35, a lanky home-remodeler, traveled in April from Bozeman to Haiti. He erected a sample Habihut near the Petionville camp, where some 50,000 refugees have lived in a tent city since the devastating January earthquake.

"It was pretty surreal," Ogburn said. "The destruction is amazing."

Ogburn got to shake hands with actor Sean Penn, whose Jenkins-Penn Haitian Relief Organization provides food and medical relief and now oversees the Petionville camp for the United Nations. Penn himself has been living and working for months in Haiti.

"He watched it go up," Ogburn said. "He really liked the idea. He's one of our main advocates."

If all goes as they hope, Habihut will soon get its first order to ship a bunch of shelter kits, "a village in a box," to demonstrate what they can do in Haiti.

For the partners, this is a moment of great promise and risk. Any start-up is a gamble with no guarantee of success. Yet the partners have years of experience in business, construction and problem-solving. They have a pragmatic, can-do attitude and a goal to make a profitable business, combined with a real desire to make a difference.

"The idea of doing good while doing well, it may be overused, but this is definitely one of those opportunities," said Michael "Buz" Weas, 52, who came on board three months ago to become Habihut company president and major stockholder.

"For me it's an opportunity to give back, to feel we're making a difference, and hopefully, make money," Weas said.

A successful entrepreneur, Weas started a manufacturing software company that was sold to GE. That allowed him to move six years ago to Montana's posh Yellowstone Club, where he skied and built spec houses, until the market crashed.

Now, instead of building mansions for the rich at Big Sky, he and the other partners are hoping to build basic shelters for the world's most desperately poor.

"We all think this is an opportunity to provide jobs in Bozeman, Montana, while doing good around the world," Weas said.

"The excitement is feeling you're 20 years old again and going to help the world."

Social entrepreneurs

It all started when Eldon Leep, 64, was reading his morning newspaper in January 2009.

There in the Bozeman Chronicle was a photo and interview with Ronald Omyonga, an architect from Nairobi, who was visiting Montana State University.

It was Omyonga whose plea for help launched the MSU student chapter of Engineers Without Borders on the challenge of providing safe drinking water for his home village schools. MSU students have raised thousands of dollars and started drilling water wells so west Kenyan villagers have safe water. Wells mean children, especially girls, no longer have miss out on their education to walk miles and fetch water daily from muddying drinking holes.

Omyonga mentioned in the news article his dream of finding a housing solution for Nairobi's vast slums, a business plan that could build affordable housing and create jobs for the poor.

"It was right at the time that construction in Bozeman was crashing," said Eldon Leep. The son of a dairy farmer, who taught his 12 kids lessons of perseverance, Eldon Leep was a longtime minister. He has been in the construction business with son Bruce the last 20 years.

On a reroofing job after Bozeman's hail storm, Eldon Leep had met Bob Sterling, an architect who shared his interest in energy- efficient homes and had developed some innovative designs. Leep said he phoned Omyonga "who said in his happy voice he would love to meet us."

As they talked, Omyonga explained what Kenya needs is a shelter that three women could put up in half an hour, that weighs less than 300 pounds and costs less than $700.

"We missed on all of them," Weas said and laughed, "but it's close enough."

The Habihut weighs about 400 to 450 pounds and costs $2,500 each, including shipping overseas. The first version of an assembly manual is several pages long and looks fairly complicated.

Still, Omyonga said last week in an email from Kenya that he is excited about the Habihut. He is now one of eight partners in the Habihut company and talks with the Montanans every week via Skype on the Internet.

"The Habihut is a great innovation and I feel really privileged to be part of the team promoting it," Omyonga wrote.

Kenya has 400,000 refugees and large numbers of displaced persons living in camps who could benefit, he said. Imagine what it's like for a family to be living comfortably one day, and suddenly to be refugees, crammed in a leaky, stooped tent.

Omyonga has also worked to interest the Kenyan president's office, the nonprofit Umande Trust and the Kenyan wildlife agency, which might want shelters for its rangers.

"The reaction of the people in Kenya has been pure ecstasy," Omyonga wrote. "The government would love to use this product. The only challenge is that it is a bit expensive in the short run. We cannot compete with tents on price. We can only compete if people think longer term and think about the dignity of the people. ... (W)e cannot achieve the quality we want and which we think the people deserve ... at the price of a tent."

Their goal, Omyonga wrote, is to "revolutionize the way people in need are housed. We are not just in this for profit, we are social entrepreneurs, using a business solution to tackle a serious social problem."

To make Habihuts affordable, he said, they're looking into innovative financing, like subsidies or rent-to-buy options or micro-financing. The shelters could also be used to house small businesses that sell clean water, offer toilets or showers, recharge cell phones or serve as small convenience stores.

"As we embark on this project," Omyonga wrote, "I am very confident that we shall succeed."

Eldon Leep shares that optimism.

"Capitalism is powerful," Leep said. "We just have to use it in the right ways."

Futuristic

A light rain was falling outside, but inside the Habihut set up on Jackrabbit Lane, Eldon Leep and his partners were nice and dry.

"Welcome to our palace," Leep said.

The Habihut looks a bit futuristic with its geometric shape and white plastic walls. Inside, the single room is hexagonal, more than 13 feet across, creating 118 square feet of living space. The high, triangular roof is about 13 feet high. There was plenty of room for several people to stand up.

Sunlight came through the walls, made of sturdy, translucent polypropylene panels. The "bones" of the structure are aluminum. There are only three main supports, which are made of steel and can be anchored into the ground.

Three small, screened windows allow ventilation, and the door has a basic locking system. All the parts are recyclable, they said.

There was enough room inside the prototype Habihut set up in Nairobi last summer, Bruce Leep said, that 14 people could gather and celebrate with a dinner of chicken, rice and potatoes.

To create more space, two Habihuts can be joined together by removing one wall.

"We could build schools or hospitals or medical clinics or libraries by clustering them together," Eldon Leep said.

They guarantee the Habihut will last five years, though think it may last as long as 10 or 15 years.

Now, their fingers are crossed as they work to land their first order.

"The UN calls and needs 50,000 - that's the dream," Eldon Leep said and smiled.

In Haiti, they've been working with a Florida businessman, Neil Koppel, who has been flying medical and relief supplies and staff since the earthquake. They met through a connection at the Yellowstone Club, and Koppel has been representing Habihut to government officials and charities operating in Haiti.

Meeting Koppel was just one of several lucky breaks along the way. When things looked bleak and the Leeps had run out of funds, they went looking for investors and found Weas. He was excited about the idea and brought in old friends and entrepreneurs from Minnesota as investors and partners.

"This is a bootstrap business," financed with their own, not bank capital, Weas said.

Another lucky break came from another hail storm roofing job, which introduced the Leeps to Dave Kraft, a parts designer and "genius." Kraft spent hundreds of hours designing aluminum parts for Habihut.

Eldon Leep said this project has expanded his horizons from seeing just Montana to seeing the larger world and the lives of millions of people living in desperate conditions.

"This little structure can change life for hundreds of thousands of people," Eldon Leep said. "I'm happy and proud and excited. I'm confident this will find its place in the needs of the human race."

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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