Thousands of words, including many on this blog, have been written about the so-called clean cookstove sector. But the fundamental problem with cookstoves has been captured in a single sentence by Kevin Starr of the Mulago Foundation.
“The cheap stoves aren’t good enough,” Starr says, “and the good stoves are way too expensive.”
Yep. Cheap cookstoves–sometimes described as “clean,” “improved” or “efficient”–can save users money, reduce carbon emissions and slow down deforestation, at least when compared to open fires. But they don’t burn cleanly enough to keep users from breathing unhealthy air into their lungs, with terrible consequences for the health of children and adults. If the primary purpose of a cookstove is to prevent disease, then it’s ethically questionable, in my view, to put philanthropic or taxpayer dollars behind “improved” or “efficient” cookstoves that fall well short of World Health Organization standards.
How, then, can philanthropy deliver truly clean cookstoves to the poor?
Inyenyeri has a bold plan. A small company in Rwanda founded by an expatriate entrepreneur named Eric Reynolds, Inyenyeri leases high-quality stoves to poor people for a nominal fee, then recovers its costs and makes a profit by selling wood fuel pellets to its customers at a cost that is less than what they now pay for charcoal. The business model is ingenious, if not original. After all, you can buy a printer for just $29.99 because the profits are all in the ink.
“It’s the razor blade model, right? You make your money from the blades, not from the handle,” says Louis Boorstin,* managing director of the Osprey Foundation. “Because it’s run that way, Inyenyeri can use the best available cookstove. That gets you a health benefit, an environmental benefit and a social benefit–and a more viable business model.”
Mulago and Osprey both have supported Inyenyeri. They want the company to succeed. So do I, for at least three reasons. Continue reading