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The Elusive Goal: Truly Sustainable Change

Many thanks to Lila Holzman, one of our 2015 Summer Fellows, for submitting the following post, her second and final entry about her work in Ghana over the last month. We’re so grateful to her and wish her all the best with her future endeavors! (Don’t forget to read Lila’s previous entry if you haven’t already.)

Maachi! Good morning! This is Lila here again, back for my second and last blog entry for Potential Energy in Ghana. The four weeks have flown by, and I now find myself saying goodbye to friends made and to places now familiar. It will be strange to no longer hear Twi spoken all around me and even weirder to blend in walking down the street.

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No matter how I try, blending in as a tall obruni (white person) is pretty impossible

Over the last four weeks, this project has progressed piece by piece, with each step presenting new challenges and decisions. What types of bags should we package the fuel in? Can we test the stove in such a way that it reduces fuel consumption further? Can we get electricity and an internet connection so we can work on the tracking documents? Where can we source kerosene? Which families should we target? Which families are currently fasting for Ramadan? Have we arranged the warehouse space for when the fuel arrives? The list goes on.

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Cooking tests with different amounts of biomass briquette fuel

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This typical dish of boiled plantains (left) that are used to scoop up the vegetable and fish stew (right, watch out for fish bones!) is considered one of the more simple dishes to cook in Ghana. It took over an hour and a half and burned through a kilogram of biomass fuel.

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Power outage during a cooking test. We know the light works!

As someone committed to the idea of sustainable development, the concept of sustainability is always on my mind. For any idea or project like this one, I am always questioning: “Yeah, this sounds good now, but is it sustainable in the long term?” It is often a complicated question to answer, and it is affected by many factors.

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Biomass (new) vs. Charcoal (normal)

One such factor that I find particularly important is the way in which an initiative is executed. It has been proven that bringing a foreign concept to a group of people and saying, “You should do this,” is far from the best way to implement an idea. People need to feel empowered to take something on and need to feel that they are in charge. Development projects that forget this often fail as soon as the foreign partner returns to their own country, leaving locals to run something they never felt invested in.

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Many prospective clients asked, “Did the white girl bring the stove?” I might help get attention, but Man and Man staff take the lead as sales experts. I kept quiet while they did their thing.

Conscious of all this, I have worked hard to provide support to Man and Man staff, while intentionally taking a back seat along the way. Sometimes, this was very frustrating for me. At heart, I am a type-A personality and prefer to control things. I like to stick to schedules and to make sure tasks I know must get done are in fact accomplished. But I also understand that many such tasks are not in my control here, and that they must happen at their own pace. I cannot force steps to be completed faster and if I were to try, the outcome would not be sustainable. Ultimately, Man and Man staff will be responsible going forward for handling the logistics of the stove trial. They understand the local culture because they are part of it. If they can successfully execute the trial, I believe this stove initiative will be much more sustainable than if I were to attempt to work around them and force the project to rush forward. At the end of the day, if Man and Man does not feel empowered to run with this, it will not happen.

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Man and Man guys mastering their sales pitch. Explaining the idea of a lease is a tough one. People like owning things, but in this case the stove is just too expensive for them to buy outright.

Overall the last weeks have felt like a bit of roller coaster – overcoming obstacles only to be met with others, but that’s all part of the fun of development work. I have faith that Man and Man is up for the challenge of moving forward from the foundation we’ve been able to establish in this first month together.

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One of the multiple cooking tests organized by Man and Man. This one came with a dance party.

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While confusing to me, cooking food in a plastic bag is a common practice as is cooking food long beyond what is truly necessary. While Man and Man staff acknowledge that overcooking results in food losing some of its nutrients, they know that this is one cultural norm they cannot influence at this point.

As I look back on my short month here, I reflect that I have really enjoyed getting to know Kumasi, Ghana and seeing the cookstove world from Potential Energy’s lens. While I have not been able to accomplish every task in my original work plan, I believe I have helped to get the process started and have begun identifying and evaluating critical problem areas to address. I truly hope this trial brings to light necessary information and enables Potential Energy to effectively determine the direction of their future cookstove work in Ghana. I wish all involved the best of luck!

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I’m very thankful to this family for helping with our cooking tests and for teaching me to speak some Twi

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I miss him already!

Making a meaningful difference in Uganda

Many thanks to Ivette Ayala, one of our 2015 Summer Fellows, for submitting the following post about her work in Uganda!

Ivette Ayala

Hello! My name is Ivette and I’m Potential Energy’s Summer Fellow in Uganda! I am originally from Mexico and am currently pursuing my MBA at Wharton in Philadelphia. I’ve been in Kampala – Uganda’s capital – for over 3 weeks now. Living in Africa for the first time in my life has been quite a change, especially after spending the past year in classrooms.

Living in Uganda

Up until now, I’ve had a great experience. Ugandans are really friendly and kind people. I’ve been lucky enough to have met folks who have shown me how to get around, and even taught me about the local food and a few words of Luganda, one of the many languages spoken in the country. People have invited me to have dinner at their places, offered to braid my hair in the local style and most recently educated me in the gentle art of bargaining, so I can’t complain!

My Daily Commute

Ivette w_ Bus

My average day usually starts by negotiating fares with boda boda drivers to get to work. A boda boda is the local version of a taxi, but instead of hopping in the back seat of a yellow car, you get to sit behind the driver’s motorbike seat.

So far, I’ve been having a love-hate relationship with this means of transport. Boda bodas are probably the easiest and fastest way to move around the city, considering how bad traffic jams can get during the day. They make their way between cars, matatus (minibuses) and the occasional pedestrian. But getting to your next destination quickly comes at a price – the constant fear of falling off the bike, or even worse, getting hit by something else.

Boda bodas are pretty useful nonetheless. As I hold on tight to the back of the boda, silently praying, I often reflect on how people in my hometown of Mexico City could sure use them instead of just sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic all the time.

Where do I work? What do I do?

Rose Twine

Most days, work is at Eco Group’s office in a part of town called Kamwokya, where I work side-by-side with Rose Twine, a local entrepreneur. Rose is extremely passionate about reducing the use of charcoal and firewood in households, bringing renewable energy solutions to more and more people, and protecting the environment. When I first asked her why she started her business, she answered quickly: “Because I wanted people to stop cutting down trees.”

Rose and her brother founded Eco Group back in 2009. Their flagship product is an eco-friendly stove which uses volcanic stones that retain heat for several hours and are reusable for up to 2 years. Eco Group also provides solar panel installations and solar energy water pumps, all products that yield a positive impact for the environment.

Eco Group’s values are one of the many reasons why Potential Energy decided to partner with Rose’s company. We first started working together early in 2015 on a trial of 20 advanced biomass cookstoves that we sourced from our partner African Clean Energy. These stoves create a positive change in people’s health, by reducing exposure to household air pollution, thereby creating a cleaner environment for families.

The reason I’m here in Kampala now is to help refine operations in preparation for the second phase of the trial, during which we will distribute 80 more stoves. In this phase, we will continue to incorporate customer and Eco Group’s feedback to further improve our business model (leasing advanced stoves, packaged with the sale of locally-produced biomass fuel on a monthly basis). We’re constantly coming up with and evaluating innovative methods to increase access to advanced cookstoves for more and more people. I can already see that doing so will make a meaningful difference in their lives.

I’ll be blogging about my experience when I can, so stay tuned to hear how this summer adventure unfolds!

Potential Energy’s Field Partners

This post is the seventh in our New Directions Blog Series which chronicles some of the exciting changes happening at Potential Energy. This series will take you on a journey with us as we explore new models, markets and technologies for improving the lives of women across the African continent. In our previous post, we wrote about one of our main impact goals: decreasing the environmental impact of inefficient cooking practices by distributing advanced cooking technology and fuel. In this post, we’ll introduce you to some of the amazing organizations and people we’re partnering with to manage the implementation of our projects in Uganda and Burkina Faso, as well as our initial trials in Ghana.

PE's Field Partners

Rose and Michelle testing an advanced biomass cookstove.

Uganda – Eco Group

In Uganda, we’ve partnered with a fast-growing, local clean energy business to manage the implementation of our work in Kampala. Eco Group Ltd is a woman-led business that manufactures and sells both clean cookstove and solar technologies to families in and around Uganda’s capital. Eco Group is led by co-Founder, Rose Twine, a Ugandan woman with a passion for clean home energy.

Eco Group sells a variety of clean energy products for home and institutional use. In addition to a variety of solar panel, battery and lighting systems, Rose also sells an institutional stove, the “Eco Stove” to schools, marketplaces and other large-scale cooking suppliers. This smoke-free cookstove uses solar energy and reusable volcanic rocks (for heat retention) that are imported from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As a social enterprise whose main objective is to promote the use of renewable energy, empower local people through job creation, and reduce the use of charcoal or firewood, Eco Stove was an attractive partner for Potential Energy. The Group has been very effective in changing people’s minds about the use of charcoal, and has expanded its market rapidly since it was founded.

Burkina Faso – Entrepreneurs du Monde & Nafa Naana

In Burkina Faso, we’ve taken a different approach, working with a well-known French NGO called Entrepreneurs du Monde (EdM). As part of its mission, EdM aims advance social entrepreneurship through the creation and support of small, local “social businesses.”

With EdM’s support, we have partnered with their on-the-ground Burkinabé social business called Nafa Naana to manage local implementation of our advanced stove and fuel pilot project in the Ouagadougou area (the capital city). Nafa Naana helps poor families gain access to income generating or cost-savings product such as gas stoves, biomass cookstoves and solar lights, allowing them to improve their quality of life while reducing deforestation.

Nafa Naana has sold over 15,000 clean energy products since the start of 2013 and is excited to begin offering a new suite of products through its partnership with Potential Energy.

Ghana – Man & Man Enterprises

In Ghana, our most recent venture, we’ve partnered with Man & Man Enterprises, a locally-run clean cookstove and energy company based out of Kumasi, Ghana.

Man & Man is run by Michael Yay Agyei, a young entrepreneur who has quickly worked his way up the ladder to become one of Ghana’s top cookstove manufacturers and distributors.

Michael, whose nickname has always been “Man” just like his father, was one of 78 artisans trained in efficient cookstove production by Enterprise Works Ghana in 2002, under a program sponsored by USAID. Since his training, Michael has traveled to China and other countries to gain further manufacturing and distribution knowledge.

Man & Man manufactures and distributes efficient charcoal cookstoves (of the Jiko model) under the brand they created called “Holy Cook”. Their mission is “to contribute to the socially, economically and environmentally sustainable development of Ghana and the region by making efficient cookstoves widely available and educating the population about their benefits.”

We are very excited to work with Michael and his Project Coordinator, Overath Acheampong. Man & Man are truly experts in the Ghanaian market and are well-positioned to begin introducing advanced stove trials into the Kumasi market.

Thanks for reading! We’re so grateful for our partners’ amazing work and can’t wait to share more updates from the field. Next up in this blog series: how YOU can help us make a difference in people’s lives by making cooking a safe, straightforward and perhaps even enjoyable activity!

  1. 1. Uganda & Burkina Faso: The Start of a New Journey for Potential Energy
  2. 2. Advanced Biomass Cookstoves: What they are & why we like ‘em
  3. 3. Making Advanced Cookstoves Affordable
  4. 4. Compressed Biomass Fuel
  5. 5. Spotlight on our Impact, Part I: Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution
  6. 6. Spotlight on our Impact, Part II: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Traditional Cooking Methods
  7. 7. Potential Energy’s Field Partners – More about Eco Group, Nafa Naana and the other high-potential partner enterprises[this post]
  8. 8. How you can get involved[coming soon]

“It is what it is” … Until it isn’t!

Many thanks to one of our 2015 Summer Fellows, Lila Holzman, for submitting this blog entry!

Akwaaba! Welcome! My name is Lila and I am Potential Energy’s Summer Fellow based here in Kumasi, Ghana, where I am desperately trying to pick up some phrases in the local language called Twi. So again, Akwaaba! Ete sen? How are you? Eye! Good!

After a short, but intense training session with Potential Energy’s passionate staff in Berkeley, I departed for Ghana to put into practice the business skills I’m learning in the classroom now that I’m halfway through my MBA program at Wharton. I arrived to the capital city Accra on the night of June 8th very jet-lagged and disoriented, but I hit the ground running nevertheless.

My first challenge early the next morning was to meet a fuel supplier to find out more about his business, purchase a sample of his clean biomass briquettes, and take it with me to Kumasi for testing. The meeting was fine and I was pleasantly surprised that the supplier was willing to meet me at my hotel so that I didn’t have to deal with finding his office. The sample was a bit larger than I expected, but I was able to fit the 25kg (55 pounds!) in a large plastic bag I had with me, carry it when necessary (great workout), and check it as a piece of luggage on a domestic flight from Accra to Kumasi. Not only did I get the normal stares for being white, but I got the added expressions of genuine surprise from people confused at my baggage.

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Imagine a tall blond girl with a huge backpack on my back, a smaller backpack hanging off one shoulder, my purse strapped across my other shoulder, and carrying this in my arms.  Quite a sight!

Still thankful they let me bring my big load on this small airplane.

Still thankful they let me bring my big load on this small airplane.

Landing in Kumasi.

Landing in Kumasi.

After settling in Kumasi, I began work with Potential Energy’s partners here at a local improved stove manufacturing company called Man and Man (both father and son are nick-named “Man,” hence the name). This company is open to working with PE to expand their stove offerings and promote advanced models in addition to their normal substantial workload. My partners are named Michael and Overath, and the more I get to know them, the more I like them. They are hard-working, kind, care about issues like poverty, health, and the environment, and they have great laughs. This is important considering I fully believe the success of this pilot project (or any development initiative) depends a great deal on people from very different cultures and backgrounds coming together on a shared goal – a concept I learned well as Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama.

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Overath and Michael teaching me how to eat local fufu.

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Michael and Overath explaining that this stove will make less smoke and use less fuel.

But the work and the environment are challenging. The first major hiccup I’ve experienced is that while the stoves were supposed to arrive before I got here, they are only now being prepared for release from customs. This surprise has caused us a considerable amount of unexpected work and has delayed much of the initial work we’d planned for my first two weeks. Throughout this time, additional challenges continued to pop up. Our only stove for demonstrations is old and malfunctioning. Ghana’s electricity rationing causes power cuts at random and inconvenient times, disrupting our schedules and inhibiting Man and Man’s manufacturing productivity such that they are running into money troubles. Everyone in Ghana tends to show up for meetings 1-4 hours later than planned (or sometimes they just don’t show up). I feel I miss out on communicating effectively with our beneficiaries because I can’t speak the local language. Etc. Often, I’ve thought of a phrase that I remember hearing PE Executive Director Michelle use during our training: “It is what it is.” To me, this phrase has two sides to it. One side could seem a little pessimistic in the sense that there are some things that you can’t change so it’s not worth trying. But I view it more positively. To me, “it is what it is” notes that in order to achieve progress in a foreign environment, we have to adapt and acknowledge that there are differences and challenges, but that does not mean we should give up. It means we should work with what we have and keep going.

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Overath kicking off a Focus Group that we had to cut short due to technical difficulties.

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Michael stopping to help a friend who got his front wheel stuck in a gutter.

So that is exactly what we’ve been doing. We have continued working and planning as best we are able. Then at the end of my second week, we received the good news that our stoves should clear customs very soon and be in our possession by early next week. It truly surprised me how abruptly this news came after so much time spent worrying, planning, coordinating, and feeling frustrated. And then just like that, the issue seemed resolved. It made me realize that while we had worked with our reality that our new stoves were stuck, one of our “it is what it is” challenges suddenly “wasn’t!” With this important obstacle removed, we can now move on and continue making progress. And while not all problems can be so immediately resolved, it is important to keep at it and work through them however we can.

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Carrying wood for cooking long distances is typical daily work. For this woman, “it is what it is,” until it isn’t …

Spotlight on our Impact

Part II: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Traditional Cooking Methods

This post is the sixth in our New Directions Blog Series which chronicles some of the exciting changes happening at Potential Energy. This series will take you on a journey with us as we explore new models, markets and technologies for improving the lives of women across the African continent. In our previous post, we wrote about one of our main impact goals: reducing people’s exposure to indoor air pollution. In this post, we’ll focus in on another important impact goal: reducing emission of black carbon and greenhouse gasses, as part of the global effort to curb climate change.

In addition to causing major health problems for the people who cook over them daily, open fires and inefficient cookstoves pose a threat to the environment, both locally and globally.

As populations swell, demand for wood and charcoal to fuel these traditional cooking methods has increased many-fold, accelerating the rate of deforestation. In arid climates with little tree cover, fuel has become a scarce commodity, creating hardships for those that rely on it. Half of all African households collect wood for fuel, which translates into a huge time drain for women and young girls – literally hours everyday. In urban and semi-urban areas, where it’s more typical to purchase firewood or charcoal, the price of these fuels has increased dramatically. Often, a family’s education-related expenses are curtailed as a result.

In addition to the human hardship that dwindling wood resources causes, rapid deforestation destroys ecosystems, endangering sensitive species and forcing others to migrate into less hospitable habitats. Since trees and plants remove carbon from our atmosphere through photosynthesis, deforestation reduces nature’s capacity for carbon uptake. Deforestation also disturbs the soil, releasing large quantities of carbon previously stored in the ground.

Environmental Impact image

Traditional cooking methods also negatively impact the environment by emitting greenhouse gasses, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and methane. Inefficient cooking methods also create approximately 6% of global black carbon. Black carbon, commonly known as soot, is classified as a short-lived climate pollutant, and is the most strongly light-absorbing component of particulate matter. It’s formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels, and biomass. Advanced cookstoves have the capacity to reduce black carbon emission almost entirely, so transitioning households to using these stoves immediately reduces the warming potential of our atmosphere.

Lastly, the smoke and soot produced by these cooking methods not only harms the health of those directly exposed to it. Cooking fires also create ambient air pollution, a smoky haze that impacts the respiratory health of the community, as well as local wildlife.

The solution? Once again, advanced cookstoves, particularly forced air gasifiers like the ones we’re distributing. By greatly increasing the fuel combustion efficiency, these stoves can reduce the quantity of gaseous and particulate emissions by up to 95%.

Thanks for reading! We hope you’ve learned a lot about the environmental impacts of inefficient cooking practices. How can you help? Increase awareness by sharing this blog post with friends and family. Link to us on social media. And if you want to do more, you can donate to bring an improved stove ($20) or advanced stove ($100) into the home of a family in need in Darfur, Uganda, Ghana or Burkina Faso.

As always, use the links below to navigate to other posts in this series!

  1. 1. Uganda & Burkina Faso: The Start of a New Journey for Potential Energy
  2. 2. Advanced Biomass Cookstoves: What they are & why we like ‘em
  3. 3. Making Advanced Cookstoves Affordable
  4. 4. Compressed Biomass Fuel
  5. 5. Spotlight on our Impact, Part I: Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution
  6. 6. Spotlight on our Impact, Part II: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Traditional Cooking Methods[this post]
  7. 7. Our in-country partners – More about Eco Group, Nafa Naana and the other high-potential partner enterprises
  8. 8. How you can get involved[coming soon]

Meet Our 2015 Fellows!

Fellows training day

We’re delighted to honor Potential Energy’s second class of Summer Fellows here on our blog. Our fellows are integral to our work, and this Summer they are collaborating with our in-country partners and teams in Sudan, Ghana and Burkina Faso to build out our programming and launch new initiatives. Our work would not be possible without our Fellows, and we are so grateful for their service. Thanks, ladies!

Lila Holzman, Ghana Summer Fellow

About Lila: Lila Holzman’s love for traveling started when she was in high school and spent her junior year abroad in Spain. Throughout college she sought cross-cultural experiences by participating in service trips, study abroad programs, and internships in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Brazil, and Mexico. After graduating from Rice University with a degree in Environmental Engineering, she worked domestically at a solar installation startup in DC. She then decided to return to international development, serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama. For two years, Lila worked in sustainable agriculture while living in a small, rural community with no electricity and unreliable water. She loved getting to know her host community’s way of life, and her work included tackling food security issues by building home gardens, fisheries, and improving soil quality. After the Peace Corps, she joined Wharton’s MBA program, where she is currently studying ways to promote financially sustainable development.

Lila’s Passion for PE’s Work, in Her Words: “I was very drawn to Potential Energy’s model that fully incorporates agility. I’ve found that development projects often fail when they try to expand too quickly and rely on cookie-cutter methods. Potential Energy, on the other hand, cautiously tests products and distribution systems before scaling to determine what works in each new region.”

Lila’s Focus for the Summer: Lila is working in Ghana along with Potential Energy’s newest partner, Man & Man Enterprises, to launch a stove and fuel leasing trial that aims to make best-in-class stoves available to customers in a financially-viable way. She is helping to set up operational and financial processes, establish pricing and customer feedback channels, and get things off the ground so PE can start learning about this new market.

Ivette Ayala, Uganda Summer Fellow

About Ivette: Originally from Mexico City, Ivette has always been passionate about different cultures and backgrounds. While she was in university, she traveled to Australia for one year on an international exchange, where she took the opportunity to travel around the country, as well as visit New Zealand and Southeast Asia. Upon returning to Mexico, she participated in a cross-functional project to design lightning solutions for outdoor headlamps with universities in the US, Latin America and Europe. After finishing her undergraduate degree in industrial engineering at ITESM in Mexico, she worked for Johnson & Johnson in their Finance Leadership Development Program, where she had the opportunity to meet colleagues from offices across the globe, attend trainings at J&J’s headquarters, and build out her professional skills. Upon completing the leadership program, she served as a Senior Finance Analyst, where she communicated with regional partners across Latin America on behalf of her team. Currently working toward her MBA at Wharton, Ivette is one of the incoming presidents of the Latin American Student Association, in which one of its main goals is to promote Latin American culture across the student body.

Ivette’s Passion for PE’s Work, in Her Words: “I am really excited to go out and talk to Potential Energy’s users – how their experience has been and how we can improve it. I am also eager to learn more about Uganda’s cooking culture and its differences and similarities with other cultures around the world.”

Ivette’s Focus for the Summer: Ivette is working in Uganda with PE’s in-country partner, Eco Group, to scale our advanced stove and fuel trials from 20 to 100 customers. She is working on customer acquisition, pricing, sourcing, operational processes and financial planning.

Francisca Pereira de Almeida, Sudan Summer Fellow

About Francisca: Francisca is pursuing a Masters in Social Entrepreneurship at Hult International Business School in San Francisco. After finishing her undergraduate in Physical Therapy in 2011, she went to São Tomé e Príncipe (a small island in the western equatorial coast of Central Africa), to work as a Field Project Manager in the sector of education for a Portuguese NGO called Laymen For Development. Before coming to San Francisco, she worked in the Social Entrepreneurship Institute in Portugal as a field researcher to build the first Portuguese network of social entrepreneurs and map the existing social entrepreneurship initiatives all over the country.

Francisca’s Passion for PE’s Work, in Her Words: “The first time I heard about Potential Energy was through a friend and when I saw Potential Energy had a fellowship program I knew that I needed to apply. What really got me interested in this Fellowship was the chance of having a real hands-on experience combined with a close relationship with the fieldwork. Since I’m still finishing my masters program I can’t travel outside the U.S.. Nonetheless, Potential Energy has given me the opportunity to work directly with its Sudanese field representative, Omnia Abbas. It has been an amazing experience so far.”

Here’s wishing Ivette, Lila and Francisca a great summer!

Spotlight on our Impact

Part I: Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution

This post is the fifth in our New Directions Blog Series which chronicles some of the exciting changes happening at Potential Energy. This series will take you on a journey with us as we explore new models, markets and technologies for improving the lives of women across the African continent. In our previous post, we wrote about the compressed biomass fuel we’re distributing along with the advanced biomass cookstoves. In this post, we’ll focus in on one of our main impact goals: reducing our members’ exposure to indoor air pollution.

Women and child in smoky kitchen

Over 3 billion people cook over an open fire or rudimentary cookstove. While that figure might be surprising in itself, you may still wonder why open-fire cooking is a problem. For many of us in the developed world, an open fire has positive associations: whether rugged or romantic, it’s a rare occurrence that most of us enjoy. But can you also recall a time when the smoke from such a fire bothered you? Made you cough or stung your eyes? Now, can you imagine cooking 3 meals a day over that fire? That’s the equivalent of smoking 200 cigarettes – every single day! And while for many years experts from the health community have been educating us about the harmful effects of smoking, there’s still very little awareness surrounding the negative health impact of cooking over a smoky fire.

In developing countries, the dangerous burden of cooking almost exclusively falls on the shoulders of women. Often young girls assist their mothers, while infants are kept close, sometimes even wrapped up in a sling on their mothers’ backs. As a result, the simple daily activity of preparing food brings these people in contact with up to 20 times the level of smoke exposure deemed safe by the World Health Organization.

Numerous studies over the last couple of decades have established relationships between exposure to cooksmoke and pneumonia, tuberculosis, heart disease, low birth weight, and a number of other chronic respiratory illnesses. Respiratory infections were the top cause of death in low-income countries in 2011 and are predicted to be the top cause of death in Africa by 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, where we work, smoke from cooking is responsible for 1⁄2 million deaths and 26 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) – lost years of “healthy” life. Globally, it causes more than 3 deaths per minute.

The prime cause of these ailments, illnesses and premature deaths is the particulate matter (PM), or soot, emitted by the incomplete combustion of wood, charcoal or other solid fuels. The tiniest of these particles can get lodged deep in the lungs, first impairing general lung function, then causing secondary diseases such as respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Because of their small size these particulates can also pass into the bloodstream, substantially increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.

So how can we solve this problem? We must completely eliminate smoke in the kitchen – and that is exactly what we’re aiming to do with our advanced biomass cookstove programs in Burkina Faso and Uganda.

As we’ve described previously, these advanced stoves introduce a forced draft created by a small fan in the base, which gasifies the fuel in the stove chamber, facilitating efficiency levels of 95%+ compared to open fires. This increase in efficiency makes all the difference. The visible change is astounding: instead of a smoke-filled kitchen, our program members in Uganda and Burkina Faso now cook in virtually smoke-free environments. Rather than being a dangerous, often unpleasant experience, cooking can be quick, safe, clean and even enjoyable.

To sum up, by increasing access to cutting-edge clean cookstoves and fuel, we’re saving lives, money, and time, helping the communities and people we work with achieve their full potential.

We hope that you enjoyed learning more about why indoor air pollution is an urgent problem that needs addressing. If you’re interested in reading more, we highly recommend this brief WHO report (PDF). How can you help? Increase awareness by sharing this blog post with friends and family. Link to us on social media. And if you want to do more, you can donate to bring an improved stove ($20) or advanced stove ($100) into the home of a family in need in Darfur, Uganda or Burkina Faso.

Next up, we’ll examine the environmental impact of traditional cooking practices and discuss the benefits of replacing open fires and rudimentary cookstoves with advanced biomass cookstoves.

As always, use the links below to navigate to other posts in this series!

  1. 1. Uganda & Burkina Faso: The Start of a New Journey for Potential Energy
  2. 2. Advanced Biomass Cookstoves: What they are & why we like ’em
  3. 3. Making Advanced Cookstoves Affordable
  4. 4. Compressed Biomass Fuel
  5. 5. Spotlight on our Impact, Part I: Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution[this post]
  6. 6. Spotlight on our Impact, Part II: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Traditional Cooking Methods
  7. 7. Our in-country partners – More about Eco Group, Nafa Naana and the other high-potential partner enterprises
  8. 8. How you can get involved[coming soon]

Compressed Biomass Fuel

This post is the fourth in our New Directions Blog Series which chronicles some of the exciting changes happening at Potential Energy. This series will take you on a journey with us as we explore new models, markets and technologies for improving the lives of women across the African continent. In our previous post, we wrote about how we’re making advanced biomass stoves affordable and accessible through our innovative membership model. In this post, we’ll talk more about the compressed biomass fuel: what it’s made of, how it’s produced, and why we think it’s a great fuel to use. We’ll also explain how selling the fuel enables us to expand the project to serve more families.

Traditionally, in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 80% of families use wood or charcoal to cook their meals. As a result, even in countries and regions with natural forest ecosystems, deforestation has become an acute environmental problem. Trees and other plants sequester carbon in large quantities through photosynthesis– half the weight of dry wood is carbon. Clearing forests not only limits nature’s ability to remove carbon from the air, it also releases carbon from the disturbed soil, greatly increasing atmospheric carbon levels and accelerating global warming.

Most sub-Saharan African countries are approaching crisis deforestation levels. A few years ago, the Ugandan government issued a report predicting complete depletion of the country’s forest stock by 2050 if deforestation rates continued unchecked.

Ideally, it would be possible to transition large numbers of people to cooking with gas or electricity in the near future. In reality, experts predict that gas and electricity providers won’t be able to build an economically-viable infrastructure and distribution network for another couple of decades. As a result, sub-Saharan Africa will continue to rely on solid biomass fuels for cooking for many years to come.

So the challenge is to reduce reliance on wood and charcoal now. The good news is that there’s a plentiful and readily-available biomass alternative to wood and charcoal: organic agricultural and industrial waste, such as sawdust, corn husk, rice straw and peanut shells. All of these organic materials are combustible, sustainable forms of biomass. Local factories in Burkina Faso and Uganda are already compressing these waste materials into pellets, discs, and/ or briquettes. We’re partnering with these factories to produce fuel for the advanced biomass stoves we’re distributing.

As we explained in our previous blog post about our membership model, affordability is very important to us. Our goal is to maximize the number of people that have access to advanced cookstoves. At the same time, we value self-sufficiency – relying solely on grants to fund our programs is not a sustainable strategy. So in order to cover the costs of these projects and generate revenue to replicate them in other geographies, we’re selling the compressed biomass fuel to our members. But don’t worry, it’s a win-win proposition: our goal is to keep household cooking expenses below what our customers would pay to purchase wood and charcoal to cook using traditional methods, while also helping to fund the expansion of our projects to serve more families.

Our next post in the series will focus on household air pollution – why it’s our primary goal to drastically reduce our members’ exposure to it. Check in soon!

As always, use the links below to navigate to other posts in this series!

  1. 1. Uganda & Burkina Faso: The Start of a New Journey for Potential Energy
  2. 2. Advanced Biomass Cookstoves: What they are & why we like ‘em
  3. 3. Making Advanced Cookstoves Affordable
  4. 4. Compressed Biomass Fuel[this post]
  5. 5. Spotlight on our Impact, Part I: Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution
  6. 6. Spotlight on our Impact, Part II: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Traditional Cooking Methods
  7. 7. Our in-country partners – More about Eco Group, Nafa Naana and the other high-potential partner enterprises
  8. 8. How you can get involved[coming soon]

Making Advanced Cookstoves Affordable

This post is the third in our New Directions Blog Series which chronicles some of the exciting changes happening at Potential Energy. This series will take you on a journey with us as we explore new models, markets and technologies for improving the lives of women across the African continent. In our previous post, we wrote about why we’ve chosen to distribute advanced biomass cookstoves in Uganda and Burkina Faso. In this post, we’ll explain how we’re making them affordable and why using these stoves can often make budgeting for education, food and other family needs easier.

Winnie explaining model

Winnie (left) explains the program to a potential member.

The advanced stoves we’re distributing in Uganda and Burkina Faso cost a lot more than the improved stoves we’ve been distributing over the years in Darfur. Each unit, including the solar panel and LED light, costs over $100. For the average household, this is simply unaffordable. So we set out to design an operating model whereby people could take a stove home and start using it immediately, without having to find the cash to purchase it.

What’s emerged as the best solution is a clean energy membership program, where new members pay a refundable security deposit to gain access to a stove and commit to purchasing pelletized biomass fuel to cook with. Not only is pelletized biomass fuel the optimal fuel type for use with advanced biomass stoves, it’s produced locally from sustainable sources like sawdust and agricultural refuse. It’s also cheaper than the large volumes of wood or charcoal needed to cook meals on open fires or with inefficient traditional stoves.

This membership model provides several benefits to customers. Since we don’t require an up-front purchase, if a customer doesn’t like the stove or if the stove malfunctions, they can simply return it for a replacement or repair. It’s a zero-risk proposition. We’re also offering a high-level of convenience and service – members can choose fuel delivery or pick-up, and can schedule follow-up stove training as needed.

Another benefit involves family budgeting. When families have to purchase wood or charcoal on the open market, they’re subject to the fluctuating price of these commodities. In Uganda, for example, most people cook with charcoal. The price of charcoal has been rising rapidly in recent years and will undoubtedly continue to fluctuate. Purchasing charcoal can consume up to 40% of a family’s income and since fuel for cooking is a non-discretionary purchase, other household purchases have to be reduced if fuel prices rise unexpectedly, as is common.

Education-related expenses are unfortunately often one of the first items to be cut from the family budget. Our program reduces the amount families spend on fuel and provides stable, predictable pricing, so that families can confidently allocate more resources towards education for their children.

Our next blog post will be all about the pelletized biomass fuel we’re selling. We’ll delve deeper into what it’s made of, how it’s produced, and why it’s the optimal fuel type. We’ll also explain how selling the fuel enables us to expand the project to serve more families. Stay tuned!

As always, use the links below to navigate to other posts in this series!

  1. 1. Uganda & Burkina Faso: The Start of a New Journey for Potential Energy
  2. 2. Advanced Biomass Cookstoves: What they are & why we like ‘em
  3. 3. Making Advanced Cookstoves Affordable[this post]
  4. 4. Compressed Biomass Fuel
  5. 5. Spotlight on our Impact, Part I: Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution
  6. 6. Spotlight on our Impact, Part II: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Traditional Cooking Methods
  7. 7. Our in-country partners – More about Eco Group, Nafa Naana and the other high-potential partner enterprises
  8. 8. How you can get involved[coming soon]

Advanced Biomass Cookstoves: What they are & why we like ‘em

This post is the second in our New Directions Blog Series which chronicles some of the exciting changes happening at Potential Energy. This series will take you on a journey with us as we explore new models, markets and technologies for improving the lives of women across the African continent. In our previous post, we briefly introduced you to advanced biomass cookstoves. In this post, we’ll describe the technology in greater detail and explain why they’re the best solution currently available.

Chances are, if you’re reading this post, the only time you’ve cooked over an open fire is on a camping trip. We’d also venture to guess that you don’t spend much time thinking about what kind of fuel you cook with – unless you’re barbecuing, of course. In Africa, however, more than 80% of people still cook over an open fire, using biomass for fuel – usually wood, sometimes charcoal, sometimes other things such as animal dung and crop waste.

The problem is that cooking over an open fire, or even using a basic cookstove, is inefficient and toxic. It takes a lot of wood or charcoal to cook a meal, and everyone in the vicinity ends up inhaling a lot of smoke. Millions of people cook like this every single day. Meanwhile, scientific communities are finding more and more hard evidence that indoor air pollution leads to serious health problems and significantly shortens life expectancy.

ACE1 & Accessories Diagram_large

Click image to expand.

Our solution to this problem is to greatly increase the use of advanced biomass cookstoves in Africa. To this end, we recently launched projects in Uganda and Burkina Faso and have begun distributing these stoves along with pelletized biomass fuel from sustainable sources.

Advanced biomass cookstoves utilize modern technology to burn biomass much more cleanly and efficiently than “basic” or “improved” stoves. The model we are distributing is a cutting-edge forced draft gasifier. In these stoves, a small fan in the base of the unit generates sufficient airflow to convert the biomass in the fuel chamber into combustible gases, maximizing heat production and minimizing the emission of harmful pollutants. Under ideal conditions, this efficiency improvement means a 60% reduction in fuel use and a 90% reduction in emissions, when compared to traditional stoves.

A significant additional benefit of the stove is the amount of time that users save – cooking over an open fire or using a basic cookstove can take up to twice as long. As a result, women and children have more time to spend doing other things, whether it be starting or growing a business, attending classes, becoming leaders in their communities, or creating a better life for their children.

Lastly, since our target communities don’t have access to reliable electricity, the stove can be powered by a solar panel, included in the package. When users aren’t cooking, they can use the stove as a home energy system, charging their mobile phones or powering an external LED light via its USB port.

Just like other attractive modern devices that improve lives, these stoves are expensive! Stay tuned for our next post in this series, where we describe how we’re making them affordable for low-income families in Uganda and Burkina Faso, through an innovative leasing program.

As always, use the links below to navigate to other posts in this series!

  1. 1. Uganda & Burkina Faso: The Start of a New Journey for Potential Energy
  2. 2. Advanced Biomass Cookstoves: What they are & why we like ‘em [this post]
  3. 3. Making Advanced Cookstoves Affordable
  4. 4. Compressed Biomass Fuel
  5. 5. Spotlight on our Impact, Part I: Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution
  6. 6. Spotlight on our Impact, Part II: Reducing the Environmental Impact of Traditional Cooking Methods
  7. 7. Our in-country partners – More about Eco Group, Nafa Naana and the other high-potential partner enterprises
  8. 8. How you can get involved[coming soon]