“Because the income is so inconsistent, and if they have $5 to spend, you want to make sure that $5 is worth it” – Mark Mutaahi
(Eco Stories is a special monthly feature of Africa’s best environmental initiatives. Every 1st Monday of the month, we publish exclusive interviews with people doing inspiring things for the environment in Africa. Do you think you have a worthy story to be published here but we haven’t noticed you? Send an e-mail to email@example.com to get your story featured on Eco-Stories.)
As the entire world shifts its focus towards African development, improving quality of life for people at the bottom of the pyramid is at the forefront of the discussion. One energy enterprise, UpEnergy, is invested in improving their quality of life along with promoting environmental sustainability, providing economic growth, and improving health among many other quantitative and qualitative goals.
The founding team created UpEnergy as a result of their interest in and passion for environmental sustainability, health, and international development. Their diverse backgrounds in carbon project development, clean energy and the cookstove industry in particular led them to form the company to fill a market gap, rural distribution of clean energy products. The company became operational in Uganda in October, 2012.
It is necessary to provide clean water, electricity, and efficient stove for rural communities. However, in most these communities clean water is scars, most people are off grid so they do not have electricity, and fire wood is getting harder and harder to collect and deforestation is a problem for sustainable environment. UpEnergy believes there are already products that can solve the problem, so the main issue is access. Access to these technologies in a way that is affordable and can get in the hands of people that need them the most, and this is what UpEnergy does. UpEnergy is essentially a distribution company that provides clean energy technologies to people in the developing world through carbon-financed distribution channels.
We sat to chat with Mark Mutaahi, the Country Director of upEnergy about various aspects of his work and what the organization is set out to achieve in the region.
Mark was born and raised in Uganda, and moved out to Canada for his undergraduate degree. After 11 years in Canada he moved back to Uganda to work with UpEnergy, and became the country director tasked with overseeing the Uganda operation. Mark describes the UpEnergy product line as a series of high quality products such as “efficient cook stoves, water purification technologies, and solar lights to poorly served households at affordable prices.” Mutaahi stated that they “work with rural communities to provide clean energy solutions that could improve their lives, and hence, their livelihoods.” He notes that it is fulfilling and most exciting to see their improved energy sources translate into improvement of their livelihoods.
Apart from working with energy-producing devices, Mutaahi also enjoys working with people. He mentions people management as one of his favorite parts of the job which comes without surprise as UpEnergy currently has a staff strength of 20 employees. He says that he enjoys “helping the employees develop skills they can utilize beyond this organization and helping them grow their careers.” This is representative of the culture of the organization and their commitment to development on the African continent.
The Host Communities:
The host communities play an important role in UpEnergy’s operations as they utilize several local partners from the community with particular emphasis on those who have what Mutaahi calls the “entrepreneurial spirit.” The structure at UpEnergy then gives the partners resources and tools they need to advance themselves economically. From sales and marketing training, financing partnerships with Kiva and credits / discounts, the distribution partners and customers are able to afford a better life with manageable payment plans.
Perhaps, the most intriguing aspect of this program is the steady success the program has displayed in such a short time. There are environmental and health problems that are caused by open stove cooking, as is the practice in rural communities. According to The Global Burden of Disease Study open stove cooking “causes four million premature deaths” and one billion tons of GHGs emitted per year. Using solid biomass as fuel, as is the practice, depletes forests, destroying soil quality and agricultural land. Uganda has already lost has lost 75% of its forest because of deforestation. UpEnergy distributes highly efficient stoves to help solve this problem. To date, UpEnergy has sold more than 24,000 units, impacted 125,000 lives, cut down cooking time and wood collecting time by 4 hrs per day, saved more than 120,000 trees, and prevented 30,000 tons of carbon dioxide from being emitted to the atmosphere.
These achievements have secured UpEnergy a slot in the 2013 session of the renowned Unreasonable Institute; an incubator cum accelerator for promising profit and not-for-profit enterprises. InfoDev, a branch of the World Bank also recognized UpEnergy in their Top 50 African Entrepreneurs of the year in 2013. Recently, they were able to close their Series A equity round, which will help them scale and serve more communities.
The lessons he learned:
But Mutaahi admits to making some mistakes and learning from the process of UpEnergy. He stated “I wish I had a better sense of how diverse rural communities can be.” He emphasized that “the products are the same the market is different, because people have different motivation to own them, so we have to use different incentives to be competitive in the market.” For example, he said, in Uganda, the North is dry, which means the income is limited, as oppose to the West, where it rains all year long. They also cook different kinds of food, and this requires that different market strategies be used to address their different contexts.
Advice for Young People:
Mark Mutaahi has some advice for young people that are interested in working in any area. He says, “when working with the bottom of the pyramid, there is no one size fits all solution, so take a lot of time to understand this market”. He continues, “for example, we learned that people are care about the “look” of the stove. The assumption is that stoves that look small cant cook for big families. People in Uganda mostly cook for families of 5 to 8. Therefore, conceptually they want to cook in a big pot which means that even if these stoves are capable of providing the service, the perception is the stove would not work”. There are products are functional but we cannot sell them “because they don’t fit the cultural context”. The best thing to do with any project is “understand your customer, visit communities, see what makes them tick, ask them what they want and go and make it.” And always remember, when we work with poor communities, their fundamental needs are the same as everybody else. They want products that make their life easier, they want quality, and they want functionality. There is the attitude that lower income people don’t care about quality, because their income is inconsistent. However, Mutaahi believes “because the income is so inconsistent, if they have $5 to spend, you want to make sure that $5 is worth it”.
Learn more about UpEnergy via their website, www.UpEnergyGroup.com.
Eco Stories is a special monthly feature of Africa’s best environmental initiatives. Every 1st Monday of the month, we publish exclusive interviews with people doing inspiring things for the environment in Africa. Do you think you have a worthy story to be published here but we haven’t noticed you? Send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org to get your story featured.