Partner Spotlight: Envirofit Chairman and CEO Ron Bills on a scalable solution to indoor air pollution
Earlier this year, OPIC committed a $4 million loan to Envirofit International, a Fort Collins, Colorado business that was formed 13 years ago in a spinoff from Colorado State University’s Engines and Energy Conservation Lab. With a mission to develop solutions to global energy and health challenges, Envirofit has put much of its focus on developing clean cookstoves to reduce indoor air pollution, which is a major health threat throughout the developing world. Envirofit won Time Magazine’s Heroes of the Environment Award in 2009, and was named one of The Economist’senergy and the environment Innovators of the Year in 2013.
Here, Chairman and CEO Ron Bills talks about Envirofit’s clean cookstoves and how its partnership with OPIC will help it expand its reach.
As a company that has worked on a variety of innovative technologies for emerging markets, how did you come to focus on clean cookstoves?
In 2007 we partnered with Shell Foundation’s Breathing Space Program to prove there was market for the development of a scalable clean cookstove solution. Household air pollution is a worldwide problem that affects millions, and we saw this as an opportunity to put into practice the principles that we believe in, including the power of enterprise to solve global energy problems.
Describe the research that has informed your product design.
Utilitarian products work well in emergencies, but when a family is going to bring a stove into their home and use it every day, they want something that performs well, and looks good too. The first stove we produced had a simple design, and even though it was more than three times more efficient than an open flame, it didn’t sell well. To find out why, we conducted hundreds of focus groups and learned that customers wanted more than simply a stove: They wanted a modern appliance they were proud to have in their kitchen.
By meeting face-to-face with our customers we were able to design a new stove with features including built-in handles, a long-lasting metal combustion chamber, and a modern, aesthetic design. In the two years following its launch, sales surpassed our original, more basic stove, by 330 percent.
How has OPIC supported Envirofit’s work?
In 2011, OPIC began to explore ways to connect with the clean cookstove community to support and increase impact on a global scale and invited Envirofit to participate in a forum with other key stakeholders addressing the health, economic and environmental consequences of inefficient cooking methods. This and subsequent discussions led OPIC to create financing programs such as the Portfolio for Impact for supporting high-impact projects. OPIC’s financing will help Envirofit to expand and reach more people through self-sustaining scalable models.
Explain the health risks associated with unsafe cooking processes in the developing world.
Nearly half the world’s population still uses open fires or rudimentary stoves fueled by biomass like wood, dung, and charcoal for home cooking. Cooking this way is incredibly inefficient, wasting up to 90% of the fuel’s energy. For people who purchase cooking fuel, it can consume up to 25% of household expenses for people living in energy poverty. It’s also deadly, exposing people to harmful household air pollution, which has been cited as one of the world’s greatest health risks, contributing to more than four million deaths per year. Open fires emit the equivalent smoke of 400 cigarettes per hour, and contribute to 25% of global black carbon emission. The number of people who cook this way is going to increase substantially in the next 10 years, so the need to grow the clean cookstove industry and change the attitudes and behaviors towards cleaner cooking is critical.
What is your plan for scaling to achieve a broader impact?
As the first high quality clean-cookstove company to sell 1 million stoves, we built our company to be scalable from the ground up. We invested in centralized and regional manufacturing in key markets in East Africa, West Africa, India, and Latin America. Through this model we strive to provide the highest-quality, lowest-cost product for our customers. Today, Envirofit has manufacturing facilities in China, India, Kenya, Honduras, and Mexico that have the capacity to produce 100,000 stoves per month.
With a global network of distribution partners ranging from the social, public, and private sector we are now planning to expand deeper into these existing markets and expand regional partnerships to reach more customers. This includes expanding local customer service centers to not only increase sales but increase adoption.
Finally, can you share the story of one individual or family that has benefited from using an Envirofit cookstove?
Naomi (pictured) is a hairdresser in Kumasi, Ghana who purchased one of our stoves. She liked that the stove was portable, doesn’t spread ash in the house, and produces a large and consistent amount of fire power without giving off heat. With her old stove, one small package of charcoal was not enough to cook a meal for her family, but the same amount lasts for days of cooking on an Envirofit stove. And after seeing these benefits, she was motivated to pass the technology on to other women in her community.