EcoZoom: A Three Part Model For Doing Business in Africa

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EcoZoom: A Three Part Model For Doing Business in Africa

Women using traditional cookstoves in a Sudanese refugee camp. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps.

This article was republished on The Christian Science Monitor.

Each year, almost 575,000 Africans die from the smoke and toxic fumes of traditional cook stoves and cooking fires, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

EcoZoom, a Portland-based business that makes clean-burning cookstoves for people in developing countries, is working in Somalia, Rwanda and Kenya to help solve this problem.

“EcoZoom stoves reduce fuel use by 50 percent to 60 percent and toxic emissions by 70 percent,” says Amanda West, EcoZoom’s co-founder and chief communications officer, speaking to Global Envision from her Nairobi office. “The stoves cut cooking time in half, which allows women to spend more time gardening, tending to children, and socializing.”

Recognizing that Somalia, Rwanda and Kenya have different circumstances and needs, EcoZoom partners with governments, local businesses and aid organizations to run the projects on the ground. The company manufactures and sells the stoves to its partners for distribution. The partners also translate instructions for the stoves and collect data about stove usage through surveys, technology and focus groups, which helps EcoZoom design better stoves, West says.

Although EcoZoom plans to begin assembling stoves in Kenya in 2014, all of its stoves are currently made in China. Chinese manufacturers have the ability to mass produce on a scale that is nearly impossible in a local community in Africa. A local manufacturer in Africa might produce 2,000 stoves per month, while the Chinese manufacturers can churn out more than 70,000 stoves per month.

“In order to keep up with population growth in developing countries, it’s important to have stoves mass produced,” said West.

By targeting relief, development and commercial markets, EcoZoom has become a profitable business in the short time since it was founded in 2011 in Portland, Ore.

Relief: Somalia
EcoZoom’s market in Somalia, galvanized by Relief International, targets the millions of people who fled their homes and are living in refugee camps in Mogadishu, Galkayo and Afgooye. Most of the refugees cook over hazardous open fires and three stone fires, in which a pot is supported by three stones surrounding a fire. With people crowded together, cooking fires produce even more of the smoke and toxic emissions that cause respiratory diseases.

Cooking fires also can get out of control, and have even burned down entire camps. And the area surrounding the camps quickly becomes deforested, forcing women to travel farther to find firewood, and leaving them vulnerable to sexual violence.

Relief camps can be dangerous and volatile, and the stoves must be distributed quickly, thoroughly and effectively, West said.

“When working in a camp, it is important to have a stove for everyone,” she said. “Stoves cannot be distributed to half of the camp, or there will be internal fighting.”

Relief markets do not typically mature into development or commercial markets, although it is possible, West adds.

Development: Rwanda
DelAgua Health and Development runs a pilot stove program that reaches about 10,000 Rwandans in 15 villages. The project is monitored and evaluated regularly: each stove comes equipped with a barcode linked to a household identification number. Complete records of the stoves are uploaded by community health workers in real time over smartphones to a database that lets DelAgua Health track the program’s performance.

Stove giveaways help build a development market, because they make people aware of the benefits of the stoves and prove they work, West says.

“The price elasticity of demand can be low in development markets because people don’t know the benefits of the stove, even though they may be able to afford it,” she says. “They are not aware of the respiratory dangers of smoke. In a development setting, you need to market and sometimes subsidize the stoves in order to build into a commercial market”.

Stoves currently are given away to the poorest 30 percent of the population to help create demand for the remaining 60 percent who need improved stoves. Eventually, development markets advance to commercial markets.

Commercial: Kenya
Kenyans purchase EcoZoom’s stoves out-right and buy their own fuel. 

EcoZoom recently opened its second office in Nairobi, which is a hub for international development. While its partners have conducted the marketing, distribution, evaluation and customer service for most of its other markets, the commercial market they've established in Kenya is run exclusively by EcoZoom.

Since there already was a widely used local cookstove--the Kenyan Ceramic Jiko--EcoZoom’s directors knew consumers would be open to their charcoal-only cookstove, the Zoom Jet. Kenya is the leading market for charcoal-only cookstove, according to West.

From an investment of just $40,000 and a $100,000 term loan from Mercy Corps NW, EcoZoom has grown in just two years to sell more than 90,000 stoves worldwide.

“All our markets present different business opportunities and challenges,” West says. “We think it is important to pursue them simultaneously because we want to provide high-value products that impact all the world’s consumers.”

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