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Expectations, (harsh) realities, engagement and innovation

Diana Biggs | KF 18 | Burkina Faso

I’d like to think the title of this post sums up my experience in Burkina Faso – perhaps even both professional and personally. I’ll focus on the former here and try to take you through my journey.

Expectations: As a Kiva Fellow, it’s likely you’re a Type A (if on the quirky end), dedicated, well-traveled, highly educated young person, perhaps an experienced professional looking to Pivot (see Patrick’s post for more on that) or mid-studies in a Masters program. Whilst maintaining the flexible state of mind necessary for the field – many in our class were paired with new Field Partners, some in countries where Kiva staff had yet to visit – there are naturally certain expectations or goals set for this commitment. For me, having done research and proposals from a London office, I wanted to see how microfinance programs were actually implemented on the ground.

Ouagadougou street

Walking to work in my first week in Ouaga…


My main task was to establish the framework for the partnership between Kiva and Entrepreneurs du Monde (EdM), including drafting manuals, templates, training staff and establishing procedures both in the office and in the field. Through this, I hoped to facilitate the work of EdM, to enable access to social entrepreneurship products, namely energy-efficient and gas cookstoves, by way of microfinance to the very poor, stimulate small entrepreneurs to carry the products, help to create a sustainable, replicable and financially and operationally viable value chain, thus contributing to the (sustainable) development of Burkina Faso.

Three stone stove

A traditional 3-stone stove in Burkina Faso. Extremely dangerous for the health of the women and children cooking over these, in addition to being detrimental to the environment

Harsh realities: Out in the field, the realities begin to set in – and whilst not enough to break determined spirits, they can be, at the least, harsh.  During our field mission to Dano, we saw that even at 3,500 FCFA (approx. $7 USD), which is nearly at cost, with just a minimal profit for the artisans who produce the stoves, a small portion going towards EdM for the installations, trainings, sales systems, monitoring, promotional activities, etc. and a small portion as profit for the shopkeeper, the improved cookstoves can still be prohibitively expensive for the rural poor. In the rural areas, it seemed mainly to be those (few) with office jobs or teachers who purchased them. For a villager who earns just enough to get by (or perhaps less), this cost of the cookstove can represent a huge investment.

In villages where wood is still readily available, even if gathering it takes hours, even if it means they aren’t able to cook in the rain (and this being rainy season), extremely slow cooking times and billowing black smoke, this is the current normalcy. The fact that the forests are being depleted and thus the wood will soon run out (as has already happened in certain areas of the country, the often severe ill health effects of the continuous smoke exposure, or the implications for climate change do not carry any urgency, even for the limited percentage of the population who are aware and understand these realities.

Wood to be sold for burning

Piles of wood to be sold for burning in Ouagadougou

Engagement: So, in our quest to improve livelihoods, health and the environment, how can we get these products out there, given these realities? From both my development and business school perspective, I’d say start with engagement.

Low demand for clean cookstoves is, according to some studies, a global issue, one seen before in the low demand of other simple products with social benefits, e.g. mosquito nets. Some link this to the fact that, in the past, cookstoves had been distributed for free by governments or donors – but this “gifting” lacked essential elements of a marketplace: did the beneficiaries have any motivation for the product – were they at all engaged with? Was the product the best suited culturally, in terms of cooking accessories, fit to environmental factors, preconceptions and durability? Did the beneficiaries understand how to use it? Did they understand the benefits? Were they given any information on how to use or care for the product? Judging from the unused or broken cookstoves, perhaps not enough.

To paraphrase C.K.Prahalad, author of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid , “Too many ready-made solutions, imposed on populations who are neither motivated, nor consulted.” The bottom of the pyramid in Burkina Faso, a country which ranks 181 out of 187 on the United Nations Development Programme’s 2011 human development index, represents a very large market.

The level of engagement with customers, particularly with this product and target population, given the numerous challenges and barriers (level of education, literacy, affordability, cultural preferences, openness to change, observability of benefits , etc.), must be high and must be ongoing. Since the start of EdM’s cookstove projects in 2009, they have been working with local women to understand their cooking habits, income sources, preferences for cooking tools, perceptions of stove models, as well as analyzing the efficiency, durability and health and environmental benefits of various cookstove models.

Group of women with cookstoves

A group of women examine the cookstove models

The engagement aims not only to ensure customer access and acceptance but also works towards EdM’s aim to make this project an autonomous effort. Following the initial set-up and support, the project would ideally move towards an active market based model, with the value chain for clean cookstoves, from the local artisans who create the stoves to the rural communities who purchase them, being self-sufficient and sustainable.  As with their MFI partnerships, autonomy is further ensued by EdM’s work to strengthen the operational, financial and institutional capabilities of project partners. This covers the very establishment of the value chain, to its training at all levels in topics ranging from financial management to health and environmental issues to women’s rights.

an engaged crowd

An engaged crowd at an EdM training discussion…

Innovation: Still, even if clients are motivated and aware, the harsh realities may still be real barriers. This is where innovation proves itself to be more than just a buzz word. Innovation is needed to adapt the business to the reality, using the feedback and insights that come through engagement.

The main innovation and central to my fellowship is the use of microfinance for the sale of the clean cookstoves. Using the loan facilities developed by EdM specifically for this project, rural shopkeepers can add the cookstoves to their product offering without compromising their cash flow, and groups of women who would not otherwise be able to afford such products can come together to take a small-scale loan for their purchase.

EdM Training Session

EdM staff running a training session (here, about microfinance) for participants in the cookstove program

Microfinance is opening the doors for these products but continuous innovation is needed on all levels – from the way these products can be accessed to the way in which marketing programs reach and connect to customers. Here, EdM is working on aspects including the establishment of the infrastructure needed for fuels such as gas to be available in rural areas to the use of mobile messaging for flash sales and special events, such as cook-offs where potential customers can visibly observe the benefits.

The clean cookstoves represent a large lifestyle change and EdM is targeting a hard-to-reach population in an already complex market. Here, I’ve learned that when you adjust your expectations, understand the realities, engage yourself locally and develop, test and build out innovative solutions, step by step you will start to see the progress in what you thought was the impossible.

EdM's Armel with cookstove sales results

EdM’s Armel proudly showing the cookstove sales results to date

Diana Biggs is a Kiva Fellow previously stationed with Entrepreneurs du Monde in Burkina Faso. Support innovative solutions and fund an efficient cookstove loans through this Field Partner on

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