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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!

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!

2014 Annual Report

Our 2014 annual report is here! Put together by our Visual Design Intern Xiaojie Li, the report looks back on Potential Energy’s work and progress over the past year, as well as the people who made it possible.


2014 Annual Report (PDF)

You can view this year’s report and reports for previous years here.

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.

Uganda & Burkina Faso: The Start of a New Journey for Potential Energy

This post is the first 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, and new markets, for improving the lives of women across the African continent. We’re so excited to share it with you, and we hope you enjoy reading about our work.  Please reach out if you have questions or comments, and be sure to check back soon for additional posts!

Michelle w: Eco Potential Team

Launch of Trial Operations in Uganda & Burkina Faso
After a number of months of research and planning, we’re excited to announce the launch of our trial operations in Uganda and Burkina Faso! In both countries we’re experimenting with a new impact model that enables access to best-in-class cooking technologies combined with fuel alternatives that our customers can use to power their stoves. We’ve begun with the distribution of advanced biomass stoves, which use forced air injection and gasification to achieve a clean, near smoke-free burn. Imagine a campfire, with no smoke. That’s what these stoves do. The gasification technology built into the stove allows women to prepare meals by burning biomass – a practice they have done for generations – but without the smoke. Very cool stuff. Here’s the stove we’ve started working with.

The new stoves are significantly more complex than our Sudanese ones; they have batteries, fans and lights. This is awesome, but it also means they are more expensive; a Berkeley-Darfur stove in Sudan is now around US $20, while an advanced stove is more like $100. Not cheap! The benefits, however, are significant. Women who use the stove get to experience a clean, smoke-free kitchen, a beautiful new product, and the ability to plug in a light and charge your phone; all as part of the stove package. The price is so high because there are lots of component parts; the stoves not only use steel, but they also have built-in electronics.

We know that few women in Africa can afford a $100 stove, so we need to tackle the challenge of making the stoves affordable. Our partners at Berkeley Lab are working on designing a more affordable advanced stove, but it may be a while until that project is done (read the last 4 paragraphs of this article for more details). In the meantime, we’ve decided to focus on innovating around the business model as a solution to the affordability challenge: We’re leasing stoves to customers, instead of selling them. A lease enables women to try out the product without financial risk, and they can easily return it if they don’t like it. As part of the model, customers who lease the stoves are asked to move from cooking with wood or charcoal, to cooking with a new type of biomass fuel – one that is sustainably and locally produced by our partner suppliers. This new fuel, which we’re co-branding with our in-country partners, is made of compressed organic refuse, and is formed into small pellets similar to those used in wood stoves here in the US. We’re calling it Eco Fuel, or Eco Granulés, in French.

We’re really excited about the combination of leasing advanced stoves while substituting the purchase of sustainable pellets for existing wood and charcoal purchases. It’s cool for many reasons: the expenditures of the women we’re working with don’t increase, the fuels are sustainable, the stoves are best-in-class, and our customers get access to lighting and phone charging as an added benefit.

We’re still working out many of the details. Right now we have 20 stoves, and 2 tons of fuel, deployed in each country. We’re collaborating with our local partners to tweak the implementation model, and we’re iterating quickly, and nimbly, to try and uncover a mix of pricing, logistics and operations that lead to greater impact. We can’t wait to bring you along on this journey with us. So we hope you’ll keep following our progress and that you’ll reach out to ask questions or get involved. Thanks!

This blog is the first in a series about Potential Energy’s strategic shifts. Over the next few months, we’ll take you on a journey with us as we explore the various facets of the new models we are working on. Stay tuned for upcoming blogs soon, on a variety of topics, including:

  • Pelletized biomass fuel – What it is and why we’re interested in it
  • Advanced biomass stoves – What they are, how they work, and why we care about them
  • The economics of leasing and lease-to-own structures – What we’re hoping to accomplish, who we’re inspired by, and why you should care
  • Our in-country partners – More about Eco Group, Nafa Naana and the other high-potential partner enterprises
  • How you can get involved


PE Expands into New States in Darfur

Potential Energy is excited to announce the completion of 2 pilot projects aimed at expanding to new states within Darfur. Two partners, NIDAA in West Darfur and Malam Darfur Peace and Development (MDPD) in South Darfur, were chosen to collaborate in promoting and selling a total of 600 stoves to new customers in these regions. We were struck by both partners’ commitment to their clients and their positive reputations within their local communities. As we set out to do sales trials, we didn’t know what the reaction would be among new clients; the stove is a new product in these regions, and women typically have not been exposed to the technology. What we found was very promising; customers appreciated the stoves, and in many cases the demand for the stoves exceeded the supply we were able to produce.


In particular, women were impressed by the design of the stove, and the fact that it can save them up to $35 USD/month. We’re energized by the initial results of this pilot, and we’re working to expand from piloting to working with these partners to build businesses for the sale of stoves in these new regions!

Darfur Links We Like

Some of us at Potential Energy read Chris Blattman’s international development blog. We thought of him when cleaning out our files recently, where we found a bunch of great reports and articles that have helped keep us informed over the years for our Darfur Stoves Project. So, in the same style of Blattman’s “Links I liked,” we decided to list a handful of articles and reports on Darfur that we like:

Tufts University’s Microfinance Assessment Consultancy to Darfur, Sudan was a fantastic resource when planning our revolving loan fund program in Darfur. Several members of our team have a background in microfinance, so when we first explored the idea of initiating an installment payment plan for Darfuri women to pay for their Berkeley-Darfur Stoves, we started digging around for previous research that had been done on the topic. While we found a few resources on Sudan as a whole, due to years of conflict in the region, Darfur is significantly different than the rest of the country so this research doesn’t always apply. The folks at Tufts’ Feinstein International Center (in collaboration with the IOM & UNDP Sudan) are the only ones we know of who have published research specifically focused on microfinance in Darfur.

Even just a quick glance at the photos and maps in the UNEP Population Displacement and the Environment report makes it clear how crucial interventions such as fuel-efficient clean cookstoves are in Darfur. The aerial photo of one of the camps we work in, Abu Shouk, displays the barren landscape and lack of access to firewood.

FAO’s WISDOM (Woodfuel Integrated Supply and Demand Overview Mapping)’s Land Cover Mapping and WISDOM Analysis for Emergency and Rehabilitation Planning in Darfur provides an in-depth analysis of the sustainability of current wood fuel consumption in Darfur. Using high-resolution satellite images of Darfur’s land cover to assess supply vs. demand, this study revealed for example that in Nyala, the capital of the South Darfur region, the supply of wood fuel for 2011 was 52,000 tons while the demand was 366,000 tons. With current wood harvesting practices rapidly depleting resources, in addition to recommendations for sustainable forest management, WISDOM also makes urgent recommendations for fuel substitutes and widespread fuel-efficient stove programs throughout Darfur.

Sudanese clean cookstove and fuel expert, Dr. Ahmed Hood knocks another one out of the ballpark with the report: Alternative Household Cooking Fuels for Internally Displaced Persons in Darfur, Sudan, which was written for our colleagues, Practical Action. Dr. Hood assesses a wide range of fuel options, from firewood to solar to LPG in several of the internally displaced persons (IDP) camps that we work in. This is a great resource for us to revisit because our programming in Darfur is ever-evolving as the needs of our target market change.

As members of the Safe Access to Fuel and Energy initiative (SAFE), we’re always learning from our colleagues addressing household energy needs around the world. We recently found this report by Rebecca Gunnings on SAFE’s new website: The Current State of Sustainable Energy Provision for Displaced Populations: An Analysis. In addition to learning about clean cookstove programs targeting displaced populations in other countries such as Kenya and Jordan, it provides valuable insight into other energy needs such as lighting and heating, also strong contributors to toxic smoke exposure and deforestation.

We’re Hiring!

Potential Energy is recruiting for several positions. Please go to our Careers & Internships page to learn more!

Looking back on 2014

2014 has been quite a year! We’re so grateful for the inspiring work of our partners on the ground, the volunteers that have given their time and energy to our efforts, our inaugural class of Potential Energy Fellows, our supporters near and far, and everyone who has helped in some way to make 2014 a success. Before we look too far into the future, we wanted to take a moment to look back on a few of our favorite moments from the past year.  In 2014, Potential Energy:

1. Collected Early User Data in Ethiopia

Embet Hailu

As part of our randomized control trial in Ethiopia, we are working with UC Berkeley PhD candidates Angeli Kirk and Javier Rosa, as well as the Center for Effective Global Action,  to monitor stove usage and gauge the Ethiopian market’s interest in the Berkeley-Ethiopia Stove. In conjunction with our Ethiopian partners, we installed small heat sensors called Stove Use Monitors (SUMs) on market trial stoves in order to track how often the stoves are used once customers bring them home. Since the only way to benefit from using a fuel-efficient stove is to actually use it, this data has been particularly useful in helping us to gain insight and reflect on our marketing techniques in order to to ensure maximum stove usage.  This picture shows a snapshot of usage from one of our earliest customers.

 2. Launched a Fellowship Program to Explore New Markets for Expansion


Around the world, millions of families stand to benefit from clean cooking technologies.  This summer we launched Potential Energy’s inaugural Fellowship program, hiring a crop of young and inspiring leaders who traveled to West Africa to help us identify markets where there is not only a need for clean cooking, but also where, if we were to launch, we would have a high likelihood of success.  Fellows spent time in Benin, Burkina Faso and Cameroon conducting focus groups, observing cooking practices, understanding user preferences, measuring household emissions levels produced by open fire cooking and assessing our potential for impact.  All in the all the Summer Fellowship class was a huge success! Federico Bianchi, our Fellow assigned to Burkina Faso, is pictured with a group of women outside of Bobo Dioulasso.

 3. Launched a Mobile Phone Survey Program

Al Salam FGD

Working in the Bay Area exposes us to so many groundbreaking technological innovations, such as VOTO Mobile. In 2014, we started using VOTO’s cell phone survey program in Ethiopia. Our Ethiopian customers now receive brief voice-based surveys and reminders on their cell phones from Potential Energy. With a quick press of a button, customers are able to report back to us on important data such as their daily fuel expenditures, enabling us to quickly receive updates and monitor the benefits stove users experience from their Berkeley-Ethiopia Stove.

4. Expanded to New Regions in Darfur


In partnership with AECOM Sudan, we expanded our reach to new markets within Darfur, launching stove sales trials in conjunction with local nonprofit partners Nidaa and Malam Darfur Peace and Development. Under the guidance of Abubakr Mohammed, pictured above holding a stove, new users were trained on stove usage and were offered the chance to purchase the stove. In total, 600 stoves were sold during this market trial, and we are really excited by the early results. In addition, 360 households in these new regions were surveyed about household cooking practices, fuel expenditures and general demographics, helping us to understand more about potential users in these new areas.

5. We Tested Stoves on our Own


Leveraging our close partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), this year staff members from Potential Energy were trained on how to become stove testers, getting certified by some of the leading testing technicians in the world.  Spending time at the lab, staffers Michelle Kreger and Debra Stein got their hands dirty testing new technologies for emissions performance alongside LBNL staff.  A Berkeley-Darfur Stove under the lab’s fume hood is pictured here.

6. Hired New Team Members

Team outing to SF_Sept 2014

At the start of the year, Michelle Kreger took on the role as our new Executive Director. Since then, we’ve grown our team as well as our Board of Directors. In 2014, PE welcomed Morrow Cater as our newest Board member as well as the following staff members: Diallo Afadhali, Mark Bonney, Maika Hemphill and Abu Bakr Mohammed. In addition to some of our long-time contributors, we’ve also had the pleasure to work with some amazing new volunteers, including Kathy Guis, Kim MacKoy and Caitlyn Toombs. Best of all, our favorite intern, Amanda Kwan left after graduating from Cal and is now back working with us as a consultant! Meet all of our team members by clicking here.

 7. Innovated Data Collection & Analysis

SUMS example picture copy

Last year, UC Berkeley PhD candidate Danny Wilson worked with us to monitor stove usage in North Darfur as part of Potential Energy’s first stove use monitors (SUMs) project. By comparing SUMs data to in-person survey responses, we were able to learn a lot about what training messages and interventions encouraged stove use (and how wanting to be polite can often cloud in-person survey responses). In 2014, we applied these learnings to our stove program in Darfur. Danny Wilson and his team presented this research and they’ve received some great recognition for their innovative approach to data analysis, which includes this amazing visualization.

8. Press Coverage

From industry publication Stanford Social Innovation Review to local broadcasts on the KQED Quest television program to national coverage (PBS Newshour), we’re so excited about the recognition we received in 2014! Click here to see our recent press coverage.

$413 Million to Boost Cookstove Activities


Last week, cookstove advocates from across the globe gathered in New York City to share ideas, inspiration, and to talk about the future of clean cooking.  In addition to great dialogue, the gathering afforded attendees the opportunity to publicly share their commitments to clean cookstoves and fuel. Representatives from more than 70 governments, investors, private sector organizations, UN agencies and NGOs publicly affirmed their commitments to improve and expand clean cooking over the next 3 years – it was a great turnout!  All-in, the pledges totaled $413 million USD.  Major pledging institutions included the US, Norway, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

This was the first time the international community has come together to publicly pledge their time, money and resources, and PE was excited to join the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and their pledge partners at this gathering.  Potential Energy’s Executive Director, Michelle Kreger, was in attendance.

With powerhouses such as Hilary Clinton (a long-time supporter of clean cookstoves) and Raj Shah (the head of USAID) in attendance, we are re-affirmed, and re-inspired, by the incredible opportunity we see before us to make a difference in the lives of our current, and future, stove users.   Michelle returned home from NYC invigorated, and ready to double down on our work and impact. We hope you feel the buzz too – great things are in store for 2015 and beyond!