Why Reducing Energy Poverty Starts with Farmers
Hayley, BioLite's Community Manager
“Kerugoya has the best rice in the world,” says Geoffrey, BioLite’s Kenya Sales Manager. “Other places might claim they produce the best rice in the world, this is better.”
We're on our way to meet local rice farmers Teresia and Andrew Cubi to see how things are going with their HomeStove. Like the majority of our customers at BioLite, the Cubis are smallholder farmers, meaning they own a small, family-run plot of land where they grow their own food as well as crops to sell. It’s no coincidence they are farmers - BioLite has been actively seeking out farmers since we began operations in east Africa. By focusing on farmers, we've been able to uncover invaluable insights into daily life that directly affect our designs as well as critical partnerships that support paths to ownership. An estimated 60 percent of the population in sub-saharan Africa is smallholder farmers. If we can serve this population's needs well, it's one of the biggest and fastest opportunities to scale safe and reliable energy access to rural households.
Why Smallholder Farmers? Large Population, Diverse Communities, Common Energy Needs
77% of people living in rural locations in sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to electricity. That means millions of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa live partially or completely off-grid.
What’s interesting about smallholder farmers is that they are a population made up of a mosaic of distinct rural communities. While they may use different dialects and have unique cultural practices, their day to day lives and energy needs are remarkably similar. If we can uncover solutions for farmers and reach them with these technologies, it is one of the quickest ways to address energy poverty.
Working with farmers is especially important because they play a critical role in the future of food sustainability as well as economic growth and development in the region. When a smallholder farmer gets access to energy it’s transformative and creates a ripple effect for their surrounding community. Beyond lighting their homes or charging a mobile phone, energy access has the potential to save farmers time and money which they can reinvest back into their work. Energy access also opens up a path towards improved health, education, income generation, and reduced inequality.
The Farmer Network Is The Social Network
A common dynamic among smallholder farmers in east Africa is the strong participation in local cooperatives and close connection to your neighbor. Our in-field agents (BioLite Burners) foster strong relationships with these communities, building credibility with leaders and decision-makers and setting future demos up for success.
Thanks to being such a close-knit community, these cooperatives also come with their own built-in grapevine; when a member finds something that works well, word travels fast to their neighbors. That’s exactly what happened with the Cubis. When Andrew Cubi overheard his neighbor talking about a new stove that used less fuel and generated electricity - he knew he had to have it. In a region where traditional sales channels (and therefore marketing channels) don't exist, the power of this word of mouth is exponential.
Farmer Financing - A Critical Insight From Our Customers
Years ago, when we first started working in east Africa, our burners would demo the HomeStove in front of small groups of farmers. These demos were much like the ones we host today with one big difference, we’d ask for customers to pay for the product on the spot. Over and over again the same thing would happen, we’d generate plenty of interest but none of the farmers had upfront cash. As farmers, income is inextricably linked to the harvest, making it infrequent and in lump sums. As one gets further away from a harvest, challenges arise on cash flow, budgeting, and how to afford daily life until the next cycle.
Looking into this further, we found that many farmers work with microfinance institutions to help smooth out those peaks and valleys. In between harvests, they can take out small business loans to invest in critical tools and supplies that support their work throughout the entire year. That’s when it clicked - financing was the missing piece of the puzzle. After that, we began connecting with local microfinance and PAY-GO partners to help bridge the gap. Farmers can now add the HomeStove or SolarHome 620 to an existing loan and pay it off in small increments. Over time users end up saving money because once they pay off their product, they’re able to produce their own energy for free (this makes the initial installments that much easier to handle).
Design Insights - A Farmer's Day-to-Day Directly Informs Product Features
The picture in the field above features Irene, a BioLite customer and smallholder farmer living in Kakamega, Kenya. She’s standing next to a tree where she’s hung up her SolarHome 620 Control Box. We didn’t just place the box there for a photo, she’s showing us exactly how she uses her Control Box during the day - to listen to the radio while she tends crops. This is a common practice among our customers and something we had no idea about until a 2015 field visit.
After learning that most farmers bring their radios outside to listen to while tending crops, we realized that our system needed a central hub that could function even if it wasn’t connected to the solar panel. Our team designed the Control Hub to easily unplug from the string lights and solar panel so you can take it wherever you go.
The motion sensor light feature also came as a result of visiting multiple farmers with early SolarHome prototypes. When asking customers how they preferred to set up our system, they almost always designated one of the lights as an exterior light to serve as a security light. As a direct result of this feedback, we added the motion sensor which not only made the light more energy efficient, but added a security focused feature.
Get to Know the Cubis
We arrive at the Cubi household and Teresia hurries us into their courtyard as she’s busy preparing the evening meal. She explains that her routine’s changed quite a bit since purchasing the HomeStove.
The day used to revolve around cooking. She would wake up before sunrise and build a fire for tea and breakfast before heading to tend her crops by 5:30 am. She’d spend most of the morning tending crops and getting things ready for harvest or to sell at the market. The afternoons were spent collecting plenty of fuel and getting the fire ready for the evening meal. The family would eat dinner after the kids returned home from school and spend some time together before going to bed. All in all she spent hours either collecting fuel, preparing the fire or actually cooking.
A New Stove, A New Routine
A year later and the Cubis are using their HomeStove daily. “It cooks chapati much faster,” says Teresia. She loves how easy the stove is to start and how quickly it cooks her food, “this meal would take hours over the other fire.” With the HomeStove, she doesn’t give a second thought to firing up the stove to make quick cup of tea, chapati, or a full meal.
Beyond cooking her food quickly, the stove is also saving her time on the fuel collection front. The HomeStove burns so efficiently that it consumes 50% less fuel than an open fire. When you’re a busy farmer or student (like her children) a couple extra hours each week is meaningful.
Editor’s note: On average, our customers who collect fuel spent up to 3 hours each week collecting fuel prior to owning a HomeStove. (That’s 12+ hours a month).
Her children's part? The HomeStove is a reliable outlet. While the Cubi’s home has access to electricity, power outages are frequent and when you’re a teenager who needs to keep a cell phone charged, having a reliable power source is a necessity.
For this family of farmers, access to a more efficient and reliable energy source means hours of time have opened up for them each week. Time that can be spent tending crops, investing in upgrades to their farm, and at home with the family.
The Cubis are just one of millions of households whose daily life changes dramatically with just a few watts of reliable, affordable energy access. Now, they are the ones spreading the word. Anytime a neighbor comes over, they are quick to light the stove to make tea and show off its features. Through their enthusiasm, we hope to reach more farmers in their community and continue the energy access revolution.
To see this article in action, visit our Instagram stories.