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Baker Cookstoves – Designing for the African Customer

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

New UNOSSC banner Dev Cha 2013

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY 

An innovative social enterprise is using design to create an energy-efficient cookstove for Kenya. By turning to an experienced Swedish architecture and design firm, the people behind the Baker cookstove wanted to make sure the stove’s design was as efficient as possible and relevant to the customers’ needs, while also making sure it is visually appealing and something a person would proudly want in their home.

The Baker cookstove (bakerproduct.com) has been designed to be a high-quality and desirable product that also accomplishes the goal of saving money for the user. This unique product is being developed and made at the company’s factory in Nairobi, Kenya.

Baker’s owner is Top Third Ventures Global (topthirdventures.com), a social-impact company registered in Kenya and founded in 2011 by American Lucas Belenky and Björn Hammar, a Swedish/Finnish entrepreneur. Their goal is to make sure that everyone in the developing world has access to an affordable, high-quality efficient cookstove.

While cooking is a daily necessity for billions of people, it is also costly and polluting. By switching to energy-efficient cookstoves, families can reduce the cost of cooking daily meals and, if the stove is designed right, cut the amount of pollution generated. One of the great obstacles to the take-up of energy-efficient cookstoves to date has been the absence of sustainable business models to sell and distribute them.

The Baker cookstove, designed as an aspirational product and backed up with a seven-year guarantee, hopes to change this dynamic. If things go to plan, the company hopes to significantly scale up its production based on customers wanting to have a Baker cookstove proudly on display in their home.

The Baker cookstove is the product of a deliberate attempt to use design and a well-thought-out production life cycle to create an item that is eye-catching, effective, and manufactured consistently to a high standard.

Designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune (http://www.ckr.se/), a Swedish architecture and design firm, the Baker cookstove is a sleek, round, modern stove and comes in eye-catching colors such as orange. It could easily fit in with other kitchen products in a high-end design shop. And that is the point: they want people to want the Baker cookstove.

Quality is key, and engineering and design teams constantly monitor the product and make adjustments to the cookstove as they receive feedback from customers.

The Baker cookstove is benefiting from new financing being made available through carbon credits, which its founders believe will bring big changes to the energy-efficient cookstove market over the next 10 years.

Baker’s chief executive, Lucas Belenky, told Southern Innovator magazine – this newsletter’s sister publication – about the thinking behind the Baker cookstove.

SI: What role does design play in the Baker cookstove social enterprise? At what stage did Top Third Ventures start to think through the production life cycle for the Baker cookstove? What did you feel was missing in the other cookstove models currently available on the market?

The Baker cookstove is the cornerstone of the social enterprise. Top Third Ventures is at its core a product company. There are different aspects to the business model to make it work (i.e. carbon credits and big data) but everything depends on the success of the Baker product. We started thinking through the production life cycle from the day the company was founded in late 2011. The Baker is designed for usability, aspirational value, and performance, prioritized in that order. The most important thing is that the Baker is easy to use and does not require its users to change their daily routines or cooking habits. Cooking cultures vary greatly across the developing world so it is important to understand exactly who your customer is and focus on meeting their requirements. When you have a product that is easy to use it needs to be desirable as well. Beyond the service provided, the product should make the customer feel good about themselves. Finally, the Baker cooks the same food with half the fuel and much less smoke.

The priorities seem reversed for other cookstove models on the market. Efficiency comes first, then the aesthetic design, and cultural conformity is last. Hyper-efficient cookstoves are great for health and the environment on paper but the benefits are not realized because widespread adoption isn’t achieved. Most products are imposed through a top-down approach instead of starting with the customer and designing the stove around them.

SI: Why did you choose to have the Baker cookstove designed by Claesson Koivisto Rune, a Swedish architecture and design firm? What were some of the challenges encountered when designing the product and the production life cycle? What advice do you have for other social enterprises looking to offer an appealing product to low-income households?

We wanted the Baker cookstove to be an aspirational product that you use as much because of the performance (less fuel and less smoke) as because it is beautiful. Claesson Koivisto Rune believed in our vision at a very early stage and I doubt we could have gotten where we are today without them. Challenges around the design mainly involve keeping the costs down. Our customers do not have a lot of disposable income so balancing affordability with performance and world-class design is tough.

For other entrepreneurs selling to low-income households my advice is identify your customer, listen to them, and never stop listening. This is obvious to most businesses but for social enterprises sometimes the grant organizations or other dispersers of donor funding become the customer without you noticing.

Finally, often just because the consumer is in a developing country, enterprises neglect aesthetic appeal and branding. Do not do this. Your consumer behaves for the most part like their counterpart in the developed world. They want products that look nice and make them feel good.

SI: What role is information technology playing in the Baker cookstove’s development? How do mobile phones help with reaching customers in Africa? How does offering software products such as Top3Tracker help Baker cookstoves?

Information technology has a huge impact in decentralized areas because it enables cheap flow of information. For Top Third Ventures it allows us to track our sales in real-time, communicate with current and future customers instantly, and gain valuable insights about how to improve the sales pitch and marketing strategy. The Baker cookstoves also depends on carbon finance, which requires a dialogue with current customers to ensure the usage of the cookstove is accurately measured. Information technology such as our Top3 Tracker significantly reduces the cost of accessing carbon finance.

SI: It is said an innovator is somebody who disrupts existing products and ways of doing things. How is Top Third Ventures innovating and disrupting the current approach to energy-efficient cookstove distribution?

We hope to change the way products for low-income households are designed, marketed, and sold. Top Third Ventures’ Baker cookstove embodies our conviction that these products should be customer-centric, have aspirational value, and conform to local cultures. The success of our product will show that consumers in the developing world want the same thing as their counterparts in developed countries.

Top Third is a partner of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (cleancookstoves.org).

Resources

1) Baker cookstove: The website details how the cookstove was developed. Website: bakerproduct.com

2) Top Third Ventures: The company designs, manufactures, and sells its own unique efficient cookstoves made to fit the local cultures and traditions of their customers, supported by a strong brand and world-class customer communication. In addition, Top Third Ventures works with existing manufacturers and distributors to secure carbon financing for their activities through their programmatic CDM activity and electronic data management system. Website: topthirdventures.com

3) Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves: The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves calls for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020. Website: cleancookstoves.org

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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Afropolitan: African Fashion Scene Bursting with Energy

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

ISSN 2227-3905

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Fashion is a significant global business: some estimates place the world’s clothing industry at US $900 billion a year. Clothing – like food – is something everyone requires, so fashion can be an accessible way for small-scale entrepreneurs and craftspeople to earn income and eventually tap into larger marketplaces. Through clever use of the internet and online shopping, small-scale fashion designers and clothing makers can access global markets and earn income from around the world. Initiatives like ShopAfrica53 (http://www.shopafrica53.com/) are helping people to get online and establish small web shops.

The Democratic Republic of Congo is the size of western Europe. A bitter, decade-long civil war that officially ended in the rest of the country in 2003, and that has claimed several million lives through fighting and disease, still burns on in the eastern border provinces of Ituri, North Kivu and South Kivu. As a result, Congo is now home to the world’s largest UN peacekeeping mission.

In the face of this civil strife, a group of very fashionable gentlemen bring colour and style to the country while also pioneering a way to make money and improve standards of dress in the country. Members of “La sape,” or La Societe des Ambianceurs et Personnes Elegantes (http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Société_des_ambianceurs_et_des_personnes_élégantes) — the society of tastemakers and elegant people — wear designer fashions either bought in Europe, or handmade in Congo.

They are inspired by Paris’s society world of parties, social events and fashion as they see it in magazines. It is a hybrid style: French colonialism (the Congo is a former French colony) mixed with individual interpretations of the in ‘look’.

All in the last place in the world you would expect to find such cutting-edge fashion: a place where slums and warfare are the everyday norm.

The gentlement of La Sape are featured in the new book Gentlemen of Bacongo (http://www.trolleybooks.com/bookSingle.php?bookId=118) by photographer Daniele Tamagni. He chronicles in loving detail this bright fashion phenomenon. The cover of the book features a man in an elegantly tailored lipstick pink suit and pink bowler hat – testament to the eye-catching styles on display.

But rather than a local fancy, the look refined by these gentlemen has become the inspiration for designers in Europe, like Britain’s Paul Smith (http://www.paulsmith.co.uk/).

“A Congolese sapeur is a happy man even if he does not eat, because wearing proper clothes feeds the soul and gives pleasure to the body,” Tamagni said.

They also are the living embodiment of a distinctive modern African style.

Their suits are either designer or handmade copies. The sapeurs have strict rules to go with their style: never wear more than three colours together for example.

Tamagni says there is more to the phenomenon than just appearances. Sapeur Salvador Hassan “thinks that a real sapeur needs to be cultivated and speak fluently, but also have a solid moral ethic: that means beyond the appearance and vanity of smart, expensive clothing there is the moral nobility of the individual.”

Says Hassan, “The label is not important, what is important is to be able to dress depending on the taste of the individual.”

For a sapeur, the saints are Pierre Cardin, Roberto Cavalli, Dior, Fendi, Gaultier, Gucci, Issey Miyake, Prada, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace and Yohji Yamamoto.

Unlike the followers of some other fashion styles, they do not worship violence and gang warfare.

Some find the clothes in shops in Brazzaville and Kinshasa but most try to get them from Paris.

So how do they afford these clothes that sometimes cost in the thousands when most are unemployed? They have turned their passion for fashion into a business too. They rent the clothes out for around US $25 a day to earn income. They also save their money to travel back and forth to Europe selecting the best clothes, which they then carry back to Congo and sell for a good profit.

In another development, African fashion magazines are also playing their role in shifting perceptions.

The African look has attracted a new wave of magazines to capture it and promote it. The new glossy magazine titles – Arise (http://www.arisemagazine.net/) (published in London), HauTe (http://www.fashionafrica.com/), Helm (http://www.facebook.com/pages/HELM-Magazine/41931572531) and True Love – are good examples of this new wave.

“Honestly, upwardly mobile African readers are crying out for this magazine,” Helen Jennings, editor of Arise, told the New York Times. Arise is a Nigerian style monthly started by Nigerian media mogul Nduka Obaigbena, who also publishes Nigeria’s leading newspaper, This Day.

“Because the local magazines aren’t as high-end or progressive, and no other international titles speak directly to an African readership, Arise has really caused a stir,” said Jennings.

Jennings calls the magazine’s mix of content “afropolitan”: blending pan-African and global content.

The magazine’s debut issue features the models Alek Wek, Naomi Campbell and Liya Kebede. Stories run the gamut from electronic music to football academies, and the rise of Nollywood, Nigeria’s home-grown film industry.

It features African designers and is distributed in seven countries to 60,000 readers.

Along with new magazines, more and more African designers are now getting attention on Africa’s – and the world’s – catwalks. They include Lisete Silvandira Bento Pires Pote, who started as a designer in 1998 and has been featured in many fashion shows in Angola and around the world. Her clothes are now worn by singers and actors.

Other Angolan fashion designers include Elisabeth Santos, Vadinho Pina, Tekasala Ma’at Nzinga and Shunnoz Fiel (whose appearance in a World Press Photo is drawing attention to the Angolan fashion scene) (http://www.worldpressphoto.org/index.php?option=com_photogallery&task=view&id=1463&Itemid=224).

From Botswana, Koketso Chiepe has been so successful, she opened a fashion shop in London this past summer. Chrystalix is a Cameroonian fashion designer who uses raw materials found in the Equatorial forests of her country. Another Cameroonian design label is Kreyann and sells from its boutique in Douala clothing made from rich materials like silk.

In Ghana, young pioneer Aisha Obuobi has revitalized the use of African prints in fashion (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0M2rEQ0Wehw).

A list of fashion weeks across the global South (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fashion_week) offers many opportunities to witness this creative surge across the continent.

Resources

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021

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African Farming Wisdom Now Scientifically Proven

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Increasing the agricultural productivity of Africa is critical for the continent’s future development, and the world’s. Two-thirds of Africans derive their main income from agriculture, but the continent has the largest quantity of unproductive – or unused – potential agricultural land in the world.

This means the continent has the potential to become the world’s new breadbasket – but there is a problem. A report by the International Centre for Soil Fertility and Agriculture (IFDC) found the continent had a “soil health crisis” and that three-quarters of its farmlands were severely degraded (New Scientist). The causes of this crisis include overuse of the same plot of land due to population growth, which prevents farmers moving around, and high fertilizer costs, leading to African farmers using just 10 per cent of the world average on their farms.

But a new study shows that an existing practice by some African farmers could help solve this dilemma if it was adopted by the majority.

At the University of Sydney in Australia, a study has confirmed the effectiveness of ants and termites as a tool to increase farm yields in dry areas. It found ants and termites in drier climates of the global South improved soil conditions just as earthworms do in northern, wetter and colder climates. Both termites and ants, by burrowing their way through the soil, carve out tunnels that make it easier for plants to shoot their roots outwards in search of water.

In field experiments, ants and termites helped raise wheat yields by 36 per cent by increasing water and nitrogen absorption. This is critical for agriculture in arid climates.

While termites wreak havoc on crops such as maize (corn) and sugarcane, they are very useful for other African crops.

The Australian research found termites infuse nitrogen into the soil. Nitrogen is usually dumped on fields with expensive fertilizers that are subject to market fluctuations. The termites have nitrogen-heavy bacteria in their stomachs, which they excrete into the soil through their faeces or saliva.

The research also found termites helped with reducing water wastage.

This research reinforces what has long been known to some African farmers. Long-held farmer tradition in parts of West Africa uses termites to enhance soil by placing wood on the earth to attract them. By burying manure in holes near newly planted grains, farmers in Burkina Faso attract termites to the soil.

In Malawi, bananas are planted near termite mounds to encourage the creatures. In southern Zambia, soil from termite nests is harvested and used as top soil on agricultural land.

If more farmers adopted this practice, Africa could simultaneously address its chronic malnutrition and hunger problem and contribute to the world’s food needs. As the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) found, “With 60 percent of the world’s uncultivated arable land and low crop yields, Africa is ripe for a ‘green revolution’ like those that transformed agriculture in Asia and Brazil.”

McKinsey estimated that Africa’s agricultural output could increase from US $280 billion a year now to US $500 billion by 2020 and as much as US $880 billion by 2030.

The UN recently declared that the world’s population has reached 7 billion. That is many mouths to feed and presents Africa with a dilemma and an opportunity.

And as urban growth accelerates across the global South – the world is now a majority urban place – there is a huge profit to be made from providing food to growing urban populations.

The time to act is now, as there have been reports from African farmers that they are seeing harvests declining by 15 to 25 per cent. And the picture gets gloomier: many farmers think their harvests will drop by half over the next five years.

Given that there are 2,600 different species of termites now recognised in the world (UNEP) and with over 660 species, found in Africa, it is by far the richest continent in termite diversity (Eggleton 2000) and they are proof that an affordable solution is close at hand to the current crisis.

Resources

1) World Vegetable Center: The World Vegetable Center is the world’s leading international non-profit research and development institute committed to alleviating poverty and malnutrition in developing countries through vegetable research and development. Website:http://www.avrdc.org

2) Songhai Centre: a Benin-based NGO that is a training, production, research, and development centre in sustainable agriculture. Website:http://www.songhai.org/english

3) Marketing African Leafy Vegetables: Challenges and Opportunities in the Kenyan Context by Kennedy M. Shiundu and Ruth. K. Oniang. Website:http://www.ajfand.net/Issue15/PDFs/8%20Shiundu-IPGR2_8.pdf

4) 2050: Africa’s Food Challenge: Prospects good, resources abundant, policy must improve: A discussion paper from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO). Website:http://www.fao.org/wsfs/forum2050/wsfs-background-documents/issues-briefs/en

5) African Alliance for Capital Expansion: A management consultancy focused on private sector development and agribusiness in West Africa. Website:http://www.africanace.com/v3

6) Ants and termites increase crop yield in a dry climate by Theodore A. Evans, Tracy Z. Dawes, Philip R. Ward and Nathan Lo, Nature Communications 2, Article number: 262

7) Integrating Ethno-Ecological and Scientific Knowledge of Termites for Sustainable Termite Management and Human Welfare in Africa by Gudeta W. Sileshi et al, Ecology and Society, Volume 14, Number 1. Website:http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/vol14/iss1/art48

8) State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet. Website: http://www.worldwatch.org/sow11

9) Soil health crisis threatens Africa’s food supply. Website:http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn8929-soilhealth-crisis-threatens-africas-food-supply.html

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