4 million people die each year from cooking on open fire. The Dutch-South African businessman Ruben Walker tackles this humanitarian disaster with a clean cooking stove – and a healthy business model.
The 31-year-old Walker – trained as an environmental engineer – started the company African Clean Energy in 2011 with his father. The family company has sold over 35,000 clean stoves in countries such as Rwanda, Malawi and Zambia. Recently a new version was launched, the ACE 1.
“Working together with my father is great”, says Walker. His father is responsible for the plant and the logistics around it. “We complement each other perfectly. He is also an – electrical – engineer.”
Walker’s goal: to offer a quality product to very poor people. His impact is his motive. “These people have spent their entire lives living in smoke. That time is over because of our cooking stove.”
Smoke from cooking stoves that use charcoal or paraffin lead to more deaths than AIDS and malaria do together, Walker calculates, and it is most often women and children. “It is also a huge environmental and poverty problem, not to mention the risk of fire.”
The African Clean Energy cooking stoves work with all kinds of biomass, including so-called ‘pellets’, which provide a clean and efficient way of burning. You can put this device in your own room without any smoke nuisance. The material can be made from any material, even from sawdust.
“In the countries where we work, the following applies: if your LPG runs out and you don’t have a local stock, you are not able to cook,” Walker says. Another problem solved: if you run out of pellets, stock or money, you can always use twigs.
For the new version Walker developed a connection for a solar panel. With the built-in battery lamps, cell phones and radios can also be charged. According to Walker, this helps to convince the men in Mozambique, as it is mostly the women who cook.
The first cooking stove was developed together with Philips. Nowadays African Clean Energy takes care of the entire production and distribution. They have a team of 60 employees producing in Lesotho (a small country surrounded by South Africa).
Walker: “We basically have a solar home system now. It is not yet suitable for a PC or fridge, but it is a good start. Light and telephone are basic needs for people who live off the grid.”
On its own feet
Except for developing a new design, it is a big step to let go of the cooperation with Philips. “We are an independent company now and Philips is our client.”
Soon, the first batch of 800 new cooking stoves will be installed in South Africa. We install this batch on a project basis in the same district. Walker: “We try to place our stoves together. This is useful for maintenance as well as distribution.”
African Clean Energy takes care of its own retail. “We don’t work with intermediaries, which means we can minimize our overhead costs.”
Thanks to the new cooking stove, which can be shipped in different components, the business model of African Clean Energy is very scalable. The units can be constructed locally. “Then soon, we will be totally scalable, there is no limit to the number of cooking stoves that we can make.”
His company qualifies for CO2 credits from the UN or the The Gold Standard Foundation. Walker does not want to keep this credits/money to his own company, but they will pass it on to the end user, who can buy himself fuel for the cooking stove or credit for his mobile phone.
Wages for work
Those credits are not a donation, he insists, but just a reward for work. “Just like getting tax benefit in The Netherlands for driving an economical car. If you can make people even buy fuel at us, we can lower the price of the cooking stove. Then you can continue offering stoves on credit.”
The potential is enormous, Walker expects, because people in the poorest communities spend an outrageous amount of money on fuel.
Ruben Walker of African Clean Energy is one of our speakers for Amsterdam Talks Tech: Smart Energy on June 15th, 2017. This night is all about sharing thoughts, ideas and innovations in the world of smart energy, so make sure to claim a spot while you still can.
This interview (2014) belongs to Sprout and is translated for the international community of Spaces.