Hear Ruben Walker speak in the session “Sustainable wood-fuel value chains for food security in Sub-Saharan Africa” at the GLF Bonn 2020 digital conference on 3 June.
Millions of people across Sub-Saharan Africa are hungry for sustainable and affordable solutions to meet their daily energy needs. About six out of every ten people on the continent rely on wood fuel (firewood or charcoal) to cook their meals – sometimes causing the destruction of forests and woodlands while exposing people to hazardous smoke that can contribute to premature deaths.
This situation calls for innovation across the value chain, from the farm to the kitchen, to support the development of a sustainable bioenergy industry that can benefit African consumers and the many people whose livelihoods depend on wood fuel production and trade.
In that spirit, Amsterdam-based start-up African Clean Energy (ACE) is proposing a one-stop energy solution for off-the-grid households in the developing world. By using a combination of thermal and electric generation, this company provides a sustainable cooking device that can also be used for phone charging and lighting. Ruben Walker, ACE’s founder and CEO, explains how it works.
What is African Clean Energy?
We are a social enterprise offering a clean cooking stove option for rural households in the developing world. Our product, called the ACE One, can burn any solid biomass, such as sticks or animal waste without producing any harmful smoke and is very efficient and powerful.
Crucial to the unique ACE One design is a 10-watt solar panel that charges the unit’s battery and can also charge a mobile phone and an LED light, providing an integral energy solution for households.
We certainly haven’t finished developing the product yet, but it’s at a level where we think we can offer an enormously positive service to our customers and we can keep adding improvements. We have already sold about 60,000 ACE One units in Lesotho, Uganda and Cambodia.
How did your company start?
My family used to live in Lesotho, where we witnessed a pressing problem around household energy consumption. Every morning we would see the black smoke billowing out of people’s houses. Women spent hours collecting firewood for their cooking, cutting short their potential to study or do other things. Overharvesting was degrading the country’s forest areas. It was a dire situation.
In response, my father and I started ACE One in 2014. The company has significantly grown (we now employ 193 people globally and 12 in Amsterdam), but it remains a family business.
Is there a big market for your product?
The potential market for the product is unbelievably large. Roughly 900 million households around the world could see their lives transformed by access to clean cooking. I cannot think of a single industry where you can have as much impact on health, environment, poverty, gender equality, safety and security.
Puzzlingly, there is very little interest from bigger companies. It is mostly start-ups that are providing new solutions. And we face enormous difficulties raising capital because of overall lack of interest in the sector. Investors should realize that we are talking about providing energy for one third of the world’s population.
Can your potential customers afford the ACE One? How are you addressing this?
The cost of the stoves is indeed a major challenge for us, an ACE One costs around USD 100. Even though it is not much money in developed countries, it’s a huge sum for people on about USD 3 a day. To address this, we have tried different approaches: first, to work with capital partners to introduce microfinancing. Second, to hire a local sales team to demonstrate its potential savings in household expenditures, the money spent on basic energy consumption over time can be cut by about 80 percent by using the product.
And now we are going to try a new solution. The new ACE One will include a microprocessor and will be sold with high-quality but affordable second-hand Samsung smartphones, giving it smart capabilities. For customers, that means they will be able to connect their phone to the product. ACE will then implement a flexible “pay-as-you-save” model. The unit can be switched off remotely if someone stops paying for it, and an app will help people track their loan repayments and contact customer services directly.
How does ACE contribute to achieving food security?
Well, we can’t discuss food and nutrition without talking about cooking. As long as people don’t have energy security, they can’t have food security.
Rural households spend a lot of money on wood fuel. The savings that our clean stove offers could instead be used to purchase or grow nutritious food.