The high demand for wood fuels is rapidly destroying Kenya’s forests and fueling the impacts of climate change locally. In an attempt to curb the decimation of forests, earlier this year the government temporarily banned logging and timber harvesting in public forests. As a result, wood fuels have become difficult to access, in addition to their being environmentally unfriendly. Acacia Innovations has come up with a cost effective and clean fuel in the form of briquettes, Kuni Safi. Kuni Safi, aims to be an economical, reliable, high-quality, healthy and eco-friendly alternative to traditional wood fuels. Acacia Innovations say that every tonne of Kuni Safi used saves 25 trees.
TechMoran spoke to Acacia Innovations Founder Elana Laichena about the company.
Briefly tell us about yourselves, your educational background, team and how they came together to form Acacia Innovations
Founder & CEO Elana Laichena has a M.Sc. in City Planning from Pratt Institute in NYC and worked in renewable energy in New York for 5 years before moving to Kenya with her Kenyan husband. Shortly after moving to Kenya, she joined a social enterprise which made charcoal briquettes from sugarcane waste. From that experience, she learned about the huge opportunity of the sector but noticed a lot of gaps in the market. She decided to start her own company to tackle those gaps and provide a clean cooking fuel that was reliable, high-quality, and delivered on time to schools and small businesses. Her first hire was Danstan Otieno, who worked at the first social enterprise as Sales Team Coordinator. Danstan is now Sales Team Coordinator at Acacia Innovations and has 3 years of sales experience and is an expert on briquettes. Our other leadership includes Annastacia Nganga, Operations Coordinator, and Mark Laichena, Director (see bios at www.acaciainnovations.com/team). Currently, the team is 5 full-time employees and 6 sales representatives.
How would you describe your company; how does it work and make money?
We supply Kuni Safi briquettes, an eco-friendly alternative to charcoal and firewood as well as affordable energy saving jikos (cookstoves) to schools and small businesses. We are already the largest supplier of clean cooking fuels to schools in Kenya. Our Kuni Safi briquettes are made of 100% sugarcane waste and are nearly smokeless. This helps keep the kitchens clean with less soot and reduces indoor air pollution, which leads to over 14,000 premature deaths in Kenya every year. In addition, Kuni Safi helps schools and businesses save money. Our customers save an average of 35% compared to firewood and 60% compared to charcoal.
We have also introduced an affordable energy saving cookstove called Kuni Safi Jiko for restaurants, hotels, caterers and small schools who cook for 20-100 people per meal. We designed and locally manufactured this cookstove to be optimized for our sugarcane waste briquettes. Unlike other institutional cookstoves, it is portable and can be used with any ordinary sufuria which the customer already owns.
What market gap did you spot that motivated you to start the company?
There briquettes technology is not new in Kenya, but the average Kenyan still has never heard of briquettes! This pointed to a huge gap in effective branding, marketing, and sales. Additionally, our competitors either target large-scale industry or small-scale households, with schools and small businesses being totally left out. Over 95% of schools in Kenya cook with charcoal or firewood, but no one else has the distribution infrastructure to be able to reliably deliver to schools in the quantities that they need (between 1 sack to 10 tons). Likewise with energy saving cookstoves, the other models on the market are either designed for households or for schools with more than 200 students, so they are either too small or much too expensive for a small school or restaurant.
We started this company to build a national distribution system to get briquettes and affordable cookstoves out to schools and small businesses. We focus on modern and proactive customer education and on-time and reliable deliveries.
What are some of your products and How has uptake been like since you launched?
We have sold Kuni Safi to over 170 schools, restaurants, hotels, and hospitals in 15 counties across Kenya since we launched in October 2016. 90% of our school customers give us a second order. We recently launched a pilot project for Kuni Safi Jikos in February 2018, and we have 5 schools who have purchased them during the initial pilot. We offer an innovative financing model for our cookstoves, in which we sell the cookstove at 50% off, if the customer signs a contract to purchase our Kuni Safi briquettes at a minimum of 26 sacks over 26 weeks (6 months).
See www.acaciainnovations.com/kunisafi for more details.
Who is your major competition? What do you do different to distinguish yourself from them?
Our competitors include industrial briquette companies as well as household briquette companies. We distinguish ourselves by building a national brand with a guaranteed quality and reliability. We deliver on-time in quantities from 1 sack to 28 tons. And we provide top-notch after-sales support, including a practical training for every customer to ensure they use our briquettes economically and save money.
What are some of the biggest challenges you faced since the inception of the company?
Kenyans can be very resistant to change and skeptical of things they haven’t heard of before. It can take us over a year to convince some school cooks that our product can actually be an improvement on charcoal or firewood. Since almost no one has previously heard of briquettes, we are the ones building the market.
Additionally, transporting low-cost bulky goods across Kenya comes with a number of challenges like the roads being washed out due to rains, heavy traffic jams, and vehicle breakdowns.
What advice would you wish to share with aspiring African entrepreneurs?
Identify something that you think other companies are doing badly which you can improve upon. And to start, focus on gaining customers and making revenues to grow your business, rather than trying to fundraise right away. Many entrepreneurs get so focused on fundraising that they lose sight of their mission to serve customers. If a customer is willing to pay for a product, that is the best sign that you are doing something that is valuable for them and the world.