Energy Efficiency

Uganda: Clean-Stove Phone Chargers & UpEnergy

“Everyone (well, almost) has a cellphone or three in Uganda,” yelled a Durango Herald headline at the end of last year. While the article lamented: “I have been surprised not only at the widespread use of cellphones but also the extent of coverage. Even in rural villages far away from a city, you can almost always get a cellphone signal. Those of us who live in rural Colorado have much to envy.”

Ten months later, I am on the phone to Erik Wurster, CEO of UpEnergy, in Massachusetts, a totally different US state. This is urban Boston, yet the signal is atrocious and as the line continues to conk out he says ruefully: “I get a better signal than this in Uganda.”

All this tightly focused US envy is most ironic because Uganda is mired in poverty and 80% of the country, or to add some context, around four million homes, do not have access to electricity. This means there may be mobile phones and signal aplenty… but there is nowhere to charge them. And more importantly, lighting and cooking are a gruelling daily trial.

“I studied for a semester in Nepal [as an undergraduate] and I spent a lot of time in rural areas and saw how everyday life was so hindered by lack of access to any form of energy,” explains Wurster.

This was the early inspiration that led Wurster to become involved in UpEnergy, an organisation which helps facilitate the distribution of clean cooking and lighting solutions to Uganda and was recently selected as one of the most innovative 10 companies in Africa by Fast Company.

“If you’re lighting with kerosene and you’re cooking with wood, life really stinks. It is hard to function. You spend all your time collecting wood. And your children are choking from smoke inside the house. Everything is dirty - there is soot on the ceiling. And basically it became clear to me that a third of humanity is living this way and it is totally avoidable with really simple technologies.”

“[Then] eight years ago, or so, I got pretty convinced that the only way to solve clean energy issues in the developing world and end poverty is to do it in a profitable way,” he continues.

“The scale of the problem is so large that it is not going to [be solved] unless you leverage private sector forces and it goes on its own momentum. That is what led me to take an interest in carbon finance. It struck me that if you’re able to monetise the benefits… [then you can] make this profitable even in some of the poorest economies in the world.”

In a nutshell, carbon finance means carbon emissions can be monetised and sold as an offset [detailed explanation from 2010]. This benefits large corporations who want to neutralise their carbon footprint and can help ordinary people via the distribution of energy efficient products which aid everyday life.

Wurster himself began his career as a non-profit investor at E+Co (which has since morphed into Persistent Energy Partners), started its carbon finance program, realised the huge potential in energy efficient cook stoves and went on to co-found E+Carbon.  Now UpEnergy, which launched in 2011, continues this important work.

“We’re building a distribution channel for clean energy products in Uganda,” explains Wurster. In practice this means the company sells improved cook stoves and solar technology through a variety of channels. These include retail networks, micro entrepreneurs, and various institutions.

“It is really an effort to commercially sell products to households in need of help in Uganda,” he continues. This means safer, more efficient, methods of lighting and cooking for ordinary people. And it also presents a means for people to earn a living in tough economic circumstances.  

“We have a supplementary revenue stream,” Wurster adds. “We also develop and sell carbon credits associated with the saved greenhouse gas initiative on some of our products. That offers additional revenue in an otherwise pretty tough business to survive in in terms of last mile distribution in Africa which is high cost and relatively low profit endeavour.”

The company initially had plans to roll this out through other African countries and parts of Central America. However, as Wurster tells us, the price for carbon credits has steadily declined since the boom in 2008/9. “The market is in very bad shape” and UpEnergy has a range of fixed price contracts which only apply in Uganda.

This means the company is upping its game in the Uganda and has pledged to serve 1 million people by 2016. This translates into the sale of 125,000 improved cook stoves and presents numerous real-life benefits to people on the ground which go above and beyond the already huge promise of clean, efficient energy.

In fact, one high-end product in UpEnergy’s portfolio is the Biolite stove which helps tackle the other critical issue in Uganda – mobile charging. This means by generating extra electricity, people can now use their stove to power their phone.

There is an awful lot to play for and as Wurster concludes on our somewhat faulty-line: “There have been plenty of instances where we’ve spoken to people in their homes and they say really clearly, ‘I used to collect wood from 8am to 11am every day… and now I collect it once a week for an hour’.”

Just imagine the impact that would have on someone’s life. In first world terms it is bigger than the vacuum cleaner, dishwasher or microwave. It means a whole extra day a week spare.


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect


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