Charlot Magayi was motivated to launch her Kenya-based company Mukuru Clean Stoves after her young daughter was burned by a stove at home. ‘Initially, the plan was to build a more stable stove to reduce the amount of burns in children under the age of five,’ she says. ‘I was raising my two-year-old daughter and I was witnessing the impact of household air pollution and poverty at the time. That's how I ended up in this space – trying to figure out how to reduce those impacts for my community and see what I could contribute in the fight against household air pollution in under-served markets.’
While her mission was born out of wanting to protect children from burns, during her research Charlot found that the condition of air within the home and the lack of access to modern energy services were far bigger concerns in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi than she'd initially realized.
‘Among the problems that were associated with inefficient stoves and open fires, burns were actually the least of them. The greater issues were household air pollution and energy poverty,’ she says. The solution seemed simple: make a new kind of stove – one that was cleaner, safer and more efficient.
One of Charlot's key concerns was making sure her product was affordable. ‘We already have alternatives in the market in Kenya and across other African countries,’ she says, but they were too expensive for people in her own community to afford. ‘We decided we were going to build a stove that serves the same purpose and has the same benefits, but is about 75% cheaper than the available alternatives.’
Though she'd never done anything quite like it, Charlot was enterprising and had been business-minded since she was a teenager. ‘I knew I could do business but, in terms of designing a stove that would do the things that I needed it to do, I had to seek help,’ she says. First, she joined a business accelerator to raise funds. Then, she worked with local experts to design a stove that would meet market needs.
Charlot and her collaborators didn't want to create a product that was too different from the kind of thing people were used to. ‘We call it an improved cookstove because we improved on the design that was already available in the market,’ she says. The result wasn't just a stable stove, but one that reduced carbon emissions in the household, too. Because it was built from recycled metal, it was affordable. Radon, Charlot learned, was the substance that caused household air pollution. When fuel is burned for longer, the radon burns for longer and the amount of carbon that's produced is reduced, she explains, something her team achieved by changing the ceramic used in the design.
It takes a village
While the cookstoves have had a major impact on the communities in western Kenya that Charlot set out to support, her business model has changed. Today, Mukuru Clean Stoves doesn't just distribute the stoves – it educates the local community and business owners on the benefits of using clean cookstoves, then signs locals up as sales leaders to sell the products. So far, it's sold more than 100,000 ovens and Charlot says that women have been essential in achieving market penetration and moving into different markets. ‘We always have the strategy of getting into a new market, partnering with the most popular women's group and then onboarding some of these women as agents,’ she says.
So far, Mukuru Clean Stoves has invested a lot of money into awareness. ‘That's why partnering with local stakeholders has really helped – because, when you educate the influencers in the community, when you educate the leaders of these women's groups, the information trickles down,’ says Charlot. On market days, when a community gathers in one place, a team sets up and educates locals on the differences between open fires, inefficient stoves and the Mukuru Clean Cookstove. ‘We let them know that for each market we have sales agents so, when they have money, they're able to come and buy the stove.’
Today, Charlot is looking at expansion. She's building a second factory in a different part of Kenya, while working on a design for an ethanol stove that'll be even cleaner than the current one. The goal is to convince more families in the wider communities to use 100% clean stoves, whether they're fueled by ethanol, electricity or solar power. The Mukuru Clean Stoves business model can be replicated beyond Kenya, so the next step is moving into 10 of the poorest African countries.
‘The plan at the end is to eradicate household air pollution and energy poverty,’ says Charlot. ‘We want to ensure energy isn't a factor contributing to poverty and that household air pollution isn't killing children across the continent. Then we can move on to other ways we can impact the world.’