Expert Q&A: Expanding Energy Access One Cookstove at a Time

By Joe Danielewicz | 31 July 2017
Judith Joan Walker

ACE Director of Operations

Judith Joan Walker is the Director of Operations at African Clean Energy and Forbes top 30 under 30 Europeans Social Entrepreneurs 2016. She has built...

Judith Joan Walker is the Director of Operations for African Clean Energy, an Amsterdam-based company focused on providing cookstoves to rural households in Africa and Southeast Asia. Their main product is the ACE-1 solar biomass cookstove, which burns solid biomass without smoke and captures solar energy with an external solar panel for mobile phone charging and LED lighting.

With ACE, Walker has built distribution networks and maintenance programs in those regions through integrated data collection. Walker has named as one of Forbes’ Top 30 Under 30 European Social Entrepreneurs for 2016.

Walker, an OnFrontiers Expert, recently discussed her work with ACE, the company’s mission, gender perceptions about the ACE-1 and value of their cookstove.

Excerpts of Walker’s conversation with OnFrontiers have been edited for length and clarity.

 

OnFrontiers

How great is the need to change or reduce gathering and using wood as a cooking fuel source?

Judith Joan Walker

It’s pretty huge. It affects the environment, it affects poverty and it affects the health of the people that cook this way now. It’s actually on quite a large scale and a lot of people don’t realize that about it.

A third of the world still cooks on open fire and with biomass and it contributes something like 18% to global greenhouse gases. It’s a huge cause for deforestation, if you look at somewhere like Haiti which is a charcoal-using culture, they don’t have any trees anymore. It’s really a big problem. You see it throughout Africa as well. Environmentally, it’s disastrous.

With regard to health, more than four million people a year die from household air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. That’s primarily women and children and it’s from cooking. It’s the smoke that’s inside the household. Also, to some degree, paraffin wax is just so polluting, it releases a lot of particle matter. It’s this energy for lighting, heating and cooking is disastrous.

The reason why I think we forget is because it’s kind of an age-old problem. People have been cooking like this forever and a lot of the world has moved on to different ways of cooking, at least ones that contribute far less to the CO2 and we’re not chopping down trees, necessarily.

In regard to getting people onto a different method of accessing energy, I think it’s very important for all those reasons. In regard to poverty, is where you see the amount of time that people spend on gathering fuel, the amount of money that they spend on paraffin, mobile phone charging because they go to a little shop and pay someone to charge their phone for them. It really contributes to the cycle of poverty and we see in Lesotho is a least developed country and extremely poor, that people are spending around $25 dollars a month just on their fuel and energy expenses.

If you look at reducing those costs, obviously reducing the amount of fuel used, reducing the CO2 that’s released, it really only has a positive impact because it really breaks that cycle. Someone that’s spending two hours a day, even if they’re gathering fuel and they’re not necessarily spending money on it, that’s time they can be spending doing something else. It also puts people at risk because they’re venturing further and further away from home to find fuel.

OnFrontiers

How large is the market for products like yours?

Judith Joan Walker

I think it’s something like 560 million households desperately need a product like ours.

Narrowing that down, in the Lesotho we’re looking at just above 350,000 households really could use this product. We’ve reached probably 5,000 or 6,000 of them now. That’s not a market that’s going to run out anytime soon either. And we’ve launched in Cambodia and in Uganda, which means there’s another two markets of several million households that need a product like this. The market is huge, and I don’t foresee growing out of it anytime soon.

That being said, we need to develop with technology. One of the reasons that we are able to have solar panels and high-quality batteries that last a really long time in our product is because the price has come down to a reasonable amount in recent years. Our solar panels, even over the last sort of three or four years, have nearly halved in price. That’s the kind of technology that we want to see becoming more affordable because it means that we can deliver it to the kind of people that really need energy independence.

 

OnFrontiers

How do you view solar renewable products that are off-grid or micro-grid? Are they complementary? Are they competition?

Judith Joan Walker

It depends very much on the product. Our product provides phone charging, lighting, heating, cooking. It’s not going to power a TV, it’s not going to power a refrigerator. That’s not what it’s built for, it really is a household appliance. So, the kind of solar products that provide that level of power, I think, are not competition.

There are small solar home systems that really only provide lighting and charging. I don’t see them as competition. We tend to be lumped in a little bit more with low-end cookstoves rather than high-end solar systems. So, when people think about it, because we say we’re a cookstove, we tend to kind of be thrown in with that group which puts us at a high price point, high quality in that group. In fact, I think we sit between the two. I find that very important, because it is multi-functional and the reason for that is because that’s what the customers need.

 

OnFrontiers

Do you run into issues of perceptions about the usefulness of the product based on gender?

Judith Joan Walker

In Lesotho, we don’t. In fact, 85% of our customers are women. We’re seeing some of that in Cambodia (with a higher percentage of male vs. female customers), where the wife or mother of the family might not necessarily be the one making decisions. I think the power aspect really does help. I think the money savings aspects really does help. It isn’t just a “woman’s problem” because it really does make everything better.

[The stove] has such an impact on sort of all facets of family life. It eliminates smoke, which means that you can see easily how it would affect your health. You can see easily how even the cleanliness of the house tends to be an important factor.

The fact that it charges your phone, the fact that it provides light, the fact that it really has the potential to save a lot of money, that’s not so gender-specific. Part of that is just in the messaging. Making it clear that it is a lot more than just a cookstove, so that it does appeal to both sides and everyone can agree..

That was sort of a driving force behind making it more multi-functional because it could be slightly, probably not even much, but slightly cheaper if it didn’t have the other functions. Part of the reason why USB ports are in there is because it doesn’t really add much to the cost to add them. But it really contributes to the functionality of the product.

 

OnFrontiers

On expansion, is that product-related? Or geographic/market? Is it both?

Judith Joan Walker

We’re expanding geographically and keeping a good balance regarding geography, especially in developing countries because there’s always a slight risk that one company gets knocked to the ground for a little while for political, weather, etc.

For example, in Lesotho we had quite a significant drought last year, which meant that nobody has any money or food or fuel or anything and then it becomes quite a precarious situation.

One has been to spread out geographically in order to keep everything in balance a little bit. The next steps will be some tech advances – we’re looking at the link between energy and communications. We’re now working with Vodacom to pilot bundling smartphones with the stoves. And we’re looking at some sort of pay-as-you-go technologies, but it’s not proved vital till now. It’s more about providing different financial options so the customer can decide what’s best for them.

We’re very customer-centric. Our next priority is data information and communications. It’s so interesting to see how our customers are generally quite underestimated in their spending power and their potential. We want to see really how much money we can save and then see how that affects the local economy, and what kind of micro businesses can spring up around access to energy.

 

OnFrontiers

What countries that you’re looking to expand into?

Judith Joan Walker

At the moment we’re in Lesotho, Uganda and Cambodia, and we’re looking to expand a little bit more throughout the surrounding regions, to build out the distribution network further. We’re also getting involved in the humanitarian sector, because energy access for refugees and IDPs has been largely ignored and it’s causing huge problems we hope to help in addressing.

 

OnFrontiers

Looking back five years or so the company since the company was founded, what have been the unexpected things about working / growing in emerging markets?

Judith Joan Walker

I think what surprised us and others is what value is placed on different features. Mobile phone charging came out as a really important feature to everyone, and this is mostly because it allows smart-phone adoption. This is really a big focus moving forward because there is nearly limitless potential to serve customers great goods and services if they have access to the internet and are in communication with us about their needs.

 

OnFrontiers

What are three tips you’d offer for a startup launching or expanding into emerging markets right now?

Judith Joan Walker

Keep in mind that your customers are just that: Customers! Chances are you don’t know better ‘what they need’ and really you should do a lot of market research to find out what appeals to the end-user and how you can best integrate all the wonderful new tech thats available. My other advice is that ‘cheap’ and ‘affordable’ are not the same word. Any goods and services you are making available MUST be affordable so that the target customer can access it, but leave the cheap stuff behind, no-one wants crappy stuff that breaks or looks bad.

Director of Operations, African Clean Energy

ACE Director of Operations

Judith Joan Walker is the Director of Operations at African Clean Energy and Forbes top 30 under 30 Europeans Social Entrepreneurs 2016. She has built out distribution networks with the aim to reach rural households in Africa and South East Asia with a focus on clean tech and energy products. Her experience is with integrated data collection and maintenance services, marketing and sensitisation strategies as well as women's empowerment and HR structures.