Potential Energy, a clean cookstove manufacturer based in Kampala, Uganda is facing challenges on several fronts. Despite having sold 45,000 high-efficiency cook stoves, the nonprofit venture is facing a host of troubles, including some existential threats.
Potential Energy sells the Berkeley-Darfur stove primarily to NGOs that give or sell them to refugees. The stove was developed with help from refugees in Darfur at Lawrence Berkeley National Labs. The wood-burning stove is a highly regarded “tier 4” stove that reduces wood consumption by more than 50 percent and reduces smoke and pollution even more.
The nonprofit notes on its website that the stoves have already impacted 270,000 people, mostly refugees.
But today, Potential Energy faces big challenges. It has paid to produce 5,000 stoves in India that sit there unassembled. According to CEO Jessica De Clerk, originally from Portland, Oregon, the company lacks the resources to bring the stoves to Uganda from India. Between shipping costs and duties, the cost to import them nearly matches the $10 per unit cost to build them in the first place.
Once they arrive, if they do, Potential Energy needs to assemble them and sell them–neither task will be free. While they have a number of small orders, the bulk of the stoves would not have an immediate home. Jessica says she hopes to sell the stoves for $20 each in bulk, meaning that Potential Energy will almost certainly lose money on bulk sales.
The challenges don’t end there. In an effort to broaden its product line and diversify its revenue sources, Potential Energy has begun selling several models of charcoal burning stoves to low-income people in urban Kampala. These stoves range from $6 to $50. The $50 stoves are sold on credit and come with contracts that require the customers to purchase more environmentally friendly charcoal briquettes.
These efforts don’t all sit well with donors, some of whom are focused on moving to the sale only of stoves that are deemed “tier 4” for both efficiency and emissions. Such stoves cost about $100 and require a fan to provide secondary air to enhance burning. Jessica, living and working in Kampala since she came here to support a project for a Portland Rotary Club, says the high prices make selling such stoves impossible. Without them, however, she faces a dearth of funding.
And there’s more. She took us to visit three customers who have purchased the $50 high-efficiency charcoal stoves.
Helen Okidi lives in a slum in Kampala about 15 minutes’ drive from the Potential Energy office. Helen is obviously proud of her stove and was thrilled to show it off to the international group of visitors from the Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship at Santa Clara University. She wasn’t reluctant to bring out her old stove to show how much nicer the new one is.
Notably, however, the new stove was clearly not being used regularly. The old stove was full of burning charcoal and she had clearly been cooking with it before we arrived. She had lit some charcoal in the new stove but admitted that she usually cooks with the old one, which consumes much more fuel and emits much more smoke.
Helen was getting virtually none of the benefits of the new stove because she continued to use the old one. She was also buying charcoal at the market rather than using and buying the briquettes that burn more efficiently and come from charcoal dust rather than from burning wood to create charcoal–using up 80 percent of the energy in the wood. So she was getting none of the financial, environmental or health benefits of her new stove.
That is not always the case. We visited both Betty Sabit and Elijah Kizza who have the same stove. Both are using theirs exclusively. Betty says she cooks two meals per day for two people and it works great. A 110-pound bag of the briquettes lasts her two months. Elijah shares the stoves with five roommates. They don’t cook as regularly, but also love the stove and the eco-friendly briquettes, which he says saves them money. Both Betty and Elijah seem to be getting all of the health, environmental and financial benefits of the stove.
Jeff Miller, the namesake for the Miller Center, offered Jessica some advice that she received well. He suggested she focus on the Berkeley-Darfur stove and jettison all of the other distractions so she can build that business to a volume where it can be self-sustaining for the organization.
Moving production to Uganda from India could significantly cut costs, eliminating most if not all importation costs, potentially cutting the landed cost of finished products almost in half.
Jessica is an impressive young CEO. She joined Potential Energy just one year ago precisely because she saw the value and the life-saving potential of the Berkeley-Darfur stove. In the year before joining Potential Energy, she developed a tier 4 stove for LivingGoods that can be produced for just $5. She is committed to the work, obviously bright and apparently hard-working, we left believing that she can find a path to greater sustainability and even more impact.
This week, I’m traveling in Africa as a guest of Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship’s Executive Director Thane Kreiner and namesakes Karen and Jeff Miller. Read all my reports.