Clean Tech & Energy

Business Approach Seeks to Scale Clean Cooking Solutions

Florida lives in rural Rwanda and uses wood in an open fire to cook for her three children and husband. She and her children spend up to three hours per day gathering the wood, mostly from eucalyptus groves around her land. Vestine lives in the Rwandan capital of Kigali and uses charcoal for her cooking. She buys the charcoal at the market for about $1 per day—a significant portion of her income. She cooks over an open grill in an alcove of her house.

For women in Africa and other parts of the developing world without access to clean cooking, cooking can be a dangerous and time-consuming daily challenge—and one that poses a wider risk to the planet. Despite decades of work by development agencies, clean cooking alternatives have struggled to succeed. One new company seeks to change that.

Cooking Hazards

According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, about three billion people around the world rely on inefficient resources like wood, charcoal, and animal dung for cooking. As many as four million people die from respiratory ailments caused by exposure to smoke. This style of household cooking is also environmentally damaging, accounting for a quarter of all black carbon emissions—the number two greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide. And over a third of wood gathered to prepare for cooking exceeds local supplies, leading to deforestation.

In Rwanda, hazardous air pollutants associated with cooking affect nearly the entire population of close to 12 million people. The country has made a substantial recovery from the civil war and genocide that devastated the nation in the early 1990s. Life expectancy rose by roughly 10 years between 1990 and 2016, and the country’s gross domestic product grew about 8% on average each year between 2001 and 2015. Still, the World Bank ranks it as the world’s 18th-poorest nation as measured by GDP per capita. In Rwanda, respiratory disease is the most common cause of death and disability. The wood gathering mentioned above has stripped the countryside bare, leading to severe erosion and mudslides.

Into this challenge has stepped Inyenyeri, a social benefit company started in California and now based in Gisenyi, Rwanda. It was founded in 2010 by Eric Reynolds, an American entrepreneur best known for founding and leading outdoor clothing company Marmot. Speaking on the sidelines of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco, Reynolds touted his company’s progress in clean cooking despite a long history of Western humanitarians coming up short in the search for the ultimate low-cost, high-efficiency stove.

“I thought there was a magic stove—there’s not,” he said. “I found a landscape of two thousand failures in 40 years.” Reynolds has grown dismissive of clean cooking pilot projects funded by governments and philanthropies. “Businesses scale,” he said. “Philanthropy and government don’t.”

A New Business Strategy

Reynolds’s target market is the $40 billion spent each year on cooking fuels in Africa. “We are trying to create an entirely new industry for a continent,” he said.

The Inyenyeri approach is simple: Give away the stove for free, then sell monthly subscriptions of wood pellets to use in it. The company uses a high-quality, Dutch-designed Mimi Moto stove; processed wood pellets are heated under pressure until they give off flammable gases, which are then fed into a burner. The high efficiency of the stove cuts wood use dramatically, as compared to burning charcoal or sticks, while gasification—the process of converting organic material into carbon dioxide without using combustion—can cut particulate emissions by over 90% compared to traditional biomass stove cooking.

At the same time, Inyenyeri notes that because the stoves heat more efficiently and require less wood gathering, women, on whom the responsibility of cooking traditionally falls, have the more opportunity to devote themselves to other pursuits.

One reason the stoves are given away for free is that they’re not cheap—each one sells on Amazon for as much as $145, or 20% of the Rwandan per capita annual GDP of $748. But their efficiency means Inyenyeri can sell fuel for less than competitiors and still make a profit. Urban dwellers like Vestine pay for the fuel in cash, saving about 25% compared to buying charcoal. Rural households like Florida’s pay in barter, collecting wood that they turn over at their local Inyenyeri pellet mill. Inyenyeri processes the wood into pellets, bags it, and delivers it by bicycle to customers.

Even with this business strategy in place, Inyenyeri still relies on government and philanthropic support. The company won a €3 million grant from the IKEA Foundation last year, plus another €750,000 to supply stoves and pellets to the Kigeme refugee camp. Inyenyeri also sells carbon credits through the World Bank’s emission reduction purchase agreement program, a finance mechanism created under the Kyoto Protocol. The company uses these funds to invest in new pellet capacity, aiming to reach up to 25,000 households by the end of 2018.

For Rwandans hoping for safer and more environmentally sustainable cooking methods, Inyenyeri’s scalable, for-profit model makes a case for what businesses can do to further sustainable living.

Photo courtesy of Inyenyeri.

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