Shortly before I left Mongolia last June, I had the opportunity to meet with Enkhjin Batjargal, the CEO of GerHub, in their offices in Club Coworking, a shared workspace on the 13th floor of the ICC Tower in downtown Ulaanbaatar. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) GerHub was founded three years ago to develop affordable solutions to some of the main problems facing ger areas, the parts of Ulaanbaatar (locally called UB) where people coming in from the countryside tend to settle. These areas have become both a site and a source of some of UB’s most pressing social and environmental problems, as now over one half of the city’s 1.3 million residents live in informal settlements around the city center.
Every city in Mongolia has its own ger areas, which have sprung up for the same reasons: successive severe weather events called dzud have caused massive livestock deaths out in the countryside. UB’s ger areas have expanded tremendously over the last decade because as rural nomads lose their herds to snow and ice storms, or lack of precipitation, they move to the city in search of work. Because they have little money, they settle in the ger areas, where they are given a small parcel of land by the government. They often continue to live in ger (yurts), the housing that nomads have traditionally lived in, well-suited for a nomadic lifestyle but not very good for living in an urban environment. There are around 40,000 ger in the outskirts of the city, and the rest of the ger area inhabitants live in detached houses. These parts of the city are starting to be hooked up to the city’s electrical grid, but most of them lack any running water or sewage systems. They are also not connected to the city’s central heating system, so they rely on coal-burning stoves for heat during Mongolia’s very cold winters. These stoves cause most of Ulaanbaatar’s air pollution, which ranks among the worst in the world during the winter months. One in ten deaths in the capital city can be attributed to air pollution, according to Breathe Mongolia.
As Enkhjin points out, the ger areas’ problems are immense. People living in these areas need to develop their own solutions and protect themselves, and she sees the role of small NGOs like GerHub as providing them with support for doing that. GerHub’s tag line is “Common problems, uncommon solutions,” indicating that they are trying to take innovative approaches to the major problems that the ger areas face. They have several projects going at the same time, in partnership with research institutions overseas. The University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Environmental Building and Design and the University of Hong Kong’s Rural Urban Lab are among their main partners, and they have also teamed up with organizations as diverse as UNICEF and North Face, the American outdoor gear company.
One of their main projects has been to develop what they call the “ger plug-in,” developed in partnership with Penn and the University of Hong Kong. The first prototype was built in October 2017 and has weathered two Mongolian winters, with a couple living in it. It is a self-contained ger structure with a septic tank, so residents would have an in-home toilet and shower, as well as a dual heating system featuring a passive wall for collecting solar heat and a heated floor. The main problem with the ger plug-in is that it remains unaffordable, costing around $12,000, well outside the budget of the people who need it the most. A ger typically costs less than a tenth of that.
They have also built a prototype community center called the Ger Innovation Hub, which will start operations this fall. It will be GerHub’s headquarters in the ger areas, but they are hoping others would serve as community centers throughout the fringes of the city. It is a house inside a greenhouse. The passive solar heat gain in the winter means that only electricity is needed to heat the inner space, so the structure will not contribute to the local air pollution. This community space will be the first of its kind in UB and will show ger area residents the potential of passive solar heating. The Ger Innovation Hub was developed with support from the Jockey Club Hong Kong and UHK’s Rural Urban Lab.
Another project, in partnership with UNICEF Mongolia and Global Office of Innovations, is the 21st Century Ger, which is researching insulation prototypes to improve heat retention in ger. Multiple teams are working in multiple locations to improve different parts of the ger: the floor, the oculus or roof ring (the peak of the ger structure that lets in light), and the door, all of which are major points of heat loss for these structures. Together with Stanford University’s design school, GerHub has developed the HubCap, a low-cost product that reduces heat loss through the oculus. A group of Wharton School MBA students from Penn came over to study ger area residents’ willingness to pay for the HubCap, and they will test the waters with around 100 products, to see if they will catch on.
All of these sound like they have the potential to help make families living in the fringe ger areas more comfortable, but Enkhjin acknowledges the difficulties an organization like GerHub faces. It’s a small team and has very limited resources, so it will be hard to make some of these interventions more affordable and to implement them on the scale that’s necessary for the size of UB’s problem. They focus their energies on a few promising projects that they can develop with their international partners. They are also always looking for new funding sources and partnerships.
Enkhjin feels that one that that makes GerHub unique is that they don’t approach the government for support. She pointed out that when the government comes in, they tend to work for political gain, disregarding the goals of NGOs or needs of citizens. For this reason, GerHub would rather work with academics and philanthropic organizations. “We are still young as an organization. When we have a strong institution and have a strategy to work with the government, and if the government approaches us, we might do something with them.” They see their goal as serving the ger area community, especially the areas on the fringe of the city which aren’t included in the government’s plans. This approach is fairly typical of NGOs, especially in developing countries, which tend to see government as a source of interference and corruption rather than a force to leverage.
Activating the community is a primary aim: “developing a community of actors to work on problems and building the capacity of the community to come up with their own solutions.” To this end, another project they have initiated in partnership with Los Angeles, CA, based SoHo Impact is the Education for Innovation program, which works with high school students to develop community-based innovation projects to address the problems in their neighborhoods. The high school students offer workshops for middle school students, so not only do they learn how to follow a project cycle from design to implementation, they also gain experience training others. This sort of grassroots approach will ideal provide participants and their communities with a greater feeling of self-efficacy, a belief in their ability to change things for themselves.
Ultimately, Enkhjin observes, the problem is one of top-down governance. “Mongolia’s democracy is still young. It’s only 30 years old.” People expect things from the government and don’t have the habit of doing things for themselves. GerHub doesn’t see itself as putting pressure on the government to be more accountable. Instead, it chooses to work with the people living in ger areas to help them find local solutions to their problems that they can implement themselves, or with the help of GerHub’s international partners.
The people running this young and youthful organization are full of ideas and energy, but it’s still hard to see them making more than a dent in the massive problems that UB’s informal settlements face. With everything still in the prototype stage after two or three years, progress seems glacial in the face of the situation’s urgency. Issues of affordability and scalability are daunting, and massive public participation seems necessary to make any real progress. But GerHub is just one of many organizations that is involved in UB’s ger areas, each with their own specialized approach. I’ll be interested to see what advances the organization makes over the coming years.