Making Life Ezyer
Right this minute a woman somewhere in rural sub-Saharan Africa is on a long trek. Not because she’s part of a nomadic tribe or visiting a neighbouring village but because she has to do something that many of us with modern conveniences take for granted – cook for her family. She starts her journey early, probably with her youngest child tied to her back; and returns to her home some hours later with jagged pieces of firewood that are uncomfortable to carry, and almost 80% her body weight. This wood will probably last her two days. This woman represents the reality of about 3 billion of the world’s population who cook meals over an open fire everyday. People who just need an easier way to get things done. The Siemens Stiftung’s “empowering people. Network” aims to support technologies that do just that – make things easier. Showcased in the Network’s Solutions Database along with other low-tech projects, the product does just that.
Why A Stove?
In many cultures around the world, the kitchen is considered the heart of the home. It is where the family derives its nutrition, and bonds over meals. In most rural settings across Africa, however, the picture is not so romantic. In these settings, the kitchen is where women spend most of their productive hours each day. Where they, and their children, contract sometimes fatal lower respiratory diseases due to excessive smoke inhalation. According to the WHO, over 4 million premature deaths across the globe result from such diseases. It is also where families expend about 30% of their already strained income.
In these scenarios, the daily quest for survival is not only hard on the people but the environment as well. A heavy reliance on and inefficient use of firewood has, over time, resulted in a serious decline in forest cover. Causing women to venture out farther and farther away from their homes in search of wood; endangering both themselves and their children. These open fire cooking practices sometimes coupled with the use of unclean fuels like kerosene contribute greatly to residential black carbon emissions that account for about 25% of global black carbon emissions. 84% of which come from households in developing nations.
For these very compelling reasons, Neil Bellefeuille and Greg Spencer, – the founders of the Paradigm Project, the initiative under which the EzyStove was conceived, saw efficient cook stoves as a great place to start.
Profit From The Poor
That phrase would stop anyone dead in their tracks. But Neil and Greg found it to be the most logical approach for ensuring a sustainable source of the capital needed to positively impact the lives of millions of families in the developing world.
They recognised that while businesses make donations to charities and contribute to various projects under their corporate social responsibility (CSR) banner, they would be more likely to consistently invest larger sums of money into ventures from which they are set to gain.
This thinking led them to set up Ezy Life. A social enterprise run under the Paradigm Project, and based in Kenya and Ethiopia.
Why A Social Enterprise?
While on a visit to Malawi some years ago, Neil came face to face with the realities of poverty in African countries. But what struck him most was the stark difference between the way this poverty had been marketed in the West and what he was actually seeing on the ground.
He found that whilst dire cases in need of direct and immediate intervention did exist – that was only a small part of the story. To his surprise, the majority of the people he met were not helpless or looking for hand-outs.
“They’re not unlike all of our ancestors at one point or another who were trying to make a living for themselves and make it better for the next generation. They are not looking for somebody to come in and ‘save’ them. They want opportunity, jobs and partnership”, said Neil.
This experience caused a significant change in his outlook – a paradigm shift, now reflected in the name of the project he runs with his partner Greg. Ezy Life is the embodiment of a business model that is respectful to the community in which it operates while still serving the need to enhance lives and livelihoods.
The model in action
The town of Machakos County in Kenya, the base of Ezy Life’s operations in the Eastern region of the country, is where I meet Zippora Mumbua – Ezy Life’s Director of Operations. This is one of the regions where Ezy Life products are in very high demand. “Every week, we deliver around 500 stoves”, says Zippora as we stand in an empty room that was not too long ago filled with round 360 stoves.
That’s great business by anyone’s standards. But as Neil, who is based in the U.S., jokingly pointed out in my interview with him “We’re not in this for the money, there are a lot of things we could do that would be much easier than this.” And according to Zippora that would be true. They make a profit of about KES 150 (USD 1.50) on the products they sell – a very small margin.
One of their more popular products Jikokoa, a charcoal-based stove today retails at KES 3,900 or USD 39.00. The name of the product is a play on two Kiswahili words Jiko (meaning stove) and Okoa (meaning save). So Jikokoa literally means “the stove that saves”. But with a price tag like that – out of the reach of many households – it was hard to imagine how this jiko lived up to its name.
Supporting Local Businesses
Ezy Life rents space from local businesses in the areas where it operates to store products ready for delivery to clients in those areas. These businesses are referred to as stockists. Each stockist is paid a flat storage fee of KES 10,000 (USD 100) every month regardless of how good sales are.
“We do this to make sure they see this rental income as supplemental only, so that they don’t lose focus on their core business.” Zippora says and adds, “We mostly work with women-owned businesses.”
From its hiring practices to its customers, Ezy Life is on a mission to empower women.
“We have a commitment as a business to put women in roles that empower them and break out of the gender norms in appropriate ways”, says Neil.
He points out that 60% of Ezy Life’s staff – 12 in Ethiopia and 25 in Kenya – are women who hold positions from management right down to sales.
The pursuit of this mission has brought about an unexpected symbiosis because, as their data shows, women make far better sales people than men: “98% of our customer base is women,” he adds. To make their products accessible to as many women as possible, Ezy Life offers two ways to buy products. Individual purchases – where the full amount must be paid up-front – or group purchases.
The enterprise sells its products to registered women’s groups that have at least 10 members. Currently, it has working relationships with around 500 groups in the Eastern region. To these women, it offers the option of “malipo ya pole pole” (Kiswahili for paying slowly) over a period of 6 months. A strategy that seems to be working out well, “We have placed about 260,000 products in people’s homes over the past 8 years. That’s in Kenya alone,” says Neil.
“We also recruit women from within these groups as Ezy Agents”, says Zippora. Ezy Agents are tasked with finding more registered groups and are paid a good basic salary according to Zippora. “I think that’s why we’re doing well as an organisation, because we work directly with the community”, she adds.
Saving Time, Money and Avoiding Legal Troubles
Ezy Life representatives are invited to group meetings where they demonstrate their products. Zippora says that it’s not a hard sell at all because the benefits are easy to see. “For example, this one [Jikokoa] lights in two minutes,” she says and goes on to explain that the stove also requires very little charcoal, allowing households to make significant savings on fuel.
And fuel costs can run very high. In certain parts of Machakos a bundle of 5 pieces of firewood can cost around KES 200 (USD 2.00) “In fact there’s an area”, she says, “Where when you go visiting somebody in the morning, they take you to a hotel for tea”. It’s cheaper to buy the tea than to make it.
But more fuel-efficient stoves have saved the women in the area more than just time and money. Because of the extremely high cost of firewood and scarcity of trees, many women are forced to encroach government-protected forests to fetch firewood for their use in the home. This often led to their arrest.
Putting The Customer First
When Ezy Life first set up shop it was operated as a franchise, or what its founders called charters. They partnered with local businesses and micro-finance institutions. This strategy didn’t work out well, however. In most cases, unreasonably high profit margins were being set and the customer service was poor.
“We made a decision to take back management of our operations on the ground, to make sure we’re able to control the customer experience,” says Neil. They now have full-time expat employees and partners who oversee their operations. All other staff is local.
Ezy Life also offers a one-year warranty on all their products entitling their customers to free repairs at no extra cost during that year. In fact, the after sales service is something Philes Kivuva, one of Ezy Life’s customers, praises them for.
Why They Choose the Ezy Life
By the time we meet with her, it’s lunchtime. She’s seated in the centre of her large shop happily speaking to customers as she expertly weaves a colourful basket. As I approach to greet her, I notice that a few inches from her sits a lit stove. A Jikokoa. And surprisingly, there is no evidence that a stove has just been lit. No smoke, no smell, nothing. I sit across from her intrigued. Enjoying the warmth of the Jiko as she speaks.
Philes is a mother of 12, a grandmother to 30 and a caregiver to children of some of her siblings and relatives. She has always run a full house. Like most Ezy Life customers in the town, she uses charcoal-based stoves. She happily announces that she now owns two Jikokoa stoves and has since retired her two larger conventional jikos, which she says wasted too much charcoal and were too slow, in favour of the smaller, more efficient stoves. “Nowadays, I buy just two tins of charcoal which last so long I even forget about it – my charcoal seller wonders what happened to me!” she says in Kiswahili.
She adds, “The good thing about them [Ezy Life] is if it gets spoilt, all I have to do is call them. They have a very good arrangement. I have never heard of anyone getting charged for repairs within the one year.” and declares loudly with a smile “I don’t want any other stove!”
Speed is essential to her when running such a large household with school-going children as well as a business. “With these stoves,” she says, “ food cooks very quickly.” As if to prove her point, within 15 minutes of our arrival, she serves us with lunch. As we eat, she mentions that the stoves also make good heaters.
Florence, a single mother of three boys (two of who live with her) agrees. She lives in a rural area about 20km from the town. She owns one Jikokoa and one EzyStove. In the rural areas, firewood is easier to come by than charcoal, which is why she reserves the Jikokoa for cold evenings. The Jikokoa doesn’t emit any carbon monoxide and so is safe for such indoor uses, Zippora clarifies.
For her day-to-day cooking, however, she uses the EzyStove, which she says has generally improved her quality of life. Before she owned the stove she would worry a lot about where to find sufficient amounts of firewood. Having only sons, this burden was left solely to her. She would also spend a lot of time cooking. Something she didn’t enjoy doing because of the irritation she would get from the smoke. The EzyStove, she says, doesn’t produce smoke, and within 3 minutes of lighting it, she is able to start cooking. “It’s just like having gas!” she adds in Kiswahili as she giggles.
Using the EzyStove has also drastically reduced her spending on fuel. Where she would spend KES 1,000 (USD 10.00) a month on firewood, she now spends the same amount every six months. An annual savings of KES 10,000 (USD 100.00)! A testament to the extraordinary results achieved by the Paradigm Project in its eight years of operation.
‘Because we pursue carbon revenue, in a positive way, it forces us to do very deep monitoring with our customers. They are reporting that we’re saving them about 15% of their disposable household income”, says Neil
What Does An Ezy Future Hold?
The Paradigm Project intends to build relationships with over 100 million people in Africa who are in need of clean energy technologies. The overall aim of the project is to build trust within those communities, as a company serving important needs with integrity.
When I asked Florence what improvements she would like to see made to Ezy Life products in the future; she replied laughing, “Please, make them bigger!”
About the author:
Ziki Odotte writes for Cleanleap. She is a science buff with a flair for design. The gods of education having smiled favourably upon her, and thanks to her mother’s tireless ingenuity, she was bequeathed with a degree in Computer Science, from University of Nairobi. After continued attempts to distill the world into algorithms she found herself, rather by accident, entwined in the environmental sustainability affairs of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) albeit in a technical capacity.
Through her sojourn there she became well versed in the consequences of viewing development and sustainability as polar opposites. She saw how Africa is uniquely positioned to find its place in the developed world having the knowledge to sidestep some of the sustainability pitfalls experienced by her forerunners. Ziki’s current interest (read obsession) is on food – producing and distributing it safely, equitably and sustainably. You can follow her also on Twitter: @ohzikiKE
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