From financial consultant to smokeless stove pioneer
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
Okey Esse traces the story of capturing a $7.1 million order for cookstoves back to the days of watching his mother stack old oil drums and use firewood to cook Moin Moin, a Yoruba steamed bean pudding that she delivered to schools.
"In 2003, my 59-year-old mom was diagnosed with a condition that doctors said was as a result of long exposure to inhaling toxic fumes from firewood," says Esse, adding that her health challenge "helped push me to find a solution."
After spending his early career as a financial consultant, Esse (who initially studied physics electronics engineering at the University of Jos'), ultimately launched (in 2017) PowerStove, a clean cookstove company.
Five years on, the powerfully built Esse and his team are leading the push to rid Nigeria of its cooking energy poverty and associated health impacts by introducing new devices to complement the old ways.
Cooking meals becomes a health threat to women and children Only about 15% of households in Nigeria use clean fuel for cooking, leaving 85% still reliant on solid fuels. Of households that do use clean fuels, the differential in the place of residence reveals a wide gap between urban (about 27%) and rural (4%) areas, according to the 2018 Nigerian Demographic Health Survey. Burning biomass fuel in the confined space of the home leads to large volumes of smoke and other pollutants, providing an inescapable avenue for human exposure. About 122 million Nigerians are exposed to household air pollution (HAP) arising from cooking with wood or kerosene stoves, with women, children and unborn foetus being the most affected, a UNICEF report notes.
Across much of the developing world, cooking is the job of women. They are also the caregivers of young children, who sleep
or play nearby as mothers cook. Long hours spent in close proximity to indoor fires means women and young children are the most vulnerable to the effects of HAP. Other studies show that pregnant women who cook with kerosene experience more adverse pregnancy outcomes, with their infants weighing less compared to mothers using liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
Esse’s cookstoves still rely on the principle of transforming energy embedded in solid fuels, but with a major difference. By burning wood pellets and other types of biomass, the stoves produce 50 watts of continuous power. In this way, the PowerStove delivers two vitally important energy services: heat for cooking and enough electricity to light lamps, charge phones or a camera, etc.
Beyond bringing modern energy services to households, PowerStoves is helping Nigerian society more broadly. While the government and private companies are keen to increase power connectivity in remote rural areas, extending the grid carries very high capital costs for infrastructure. Moreover, at one point, the government was spending large sums every year to subsidise kerosene to make it affordable to low-income households. PowerStoves reduce use of kerosene while bringing light to individual homes, thereby improving conditions and lowering costs for all involved. Nigeria’s power gap undermines growth of PowerStove and SMEs broadly
Despite being young, PowerStove is growing rapidly; it is currently the largest wood and biomass pellet producer in Nigeria and is gaining international attention. In February 2022, the social enterprise received USD 100 000 through the All On/USADF off-grid energy challenge, a multi-year collaboration between US African Development Foundation and All-On, a Shell-funded company to identify and scale innovative off-grid solutions to "power up" unserved and underserved areas in Nigeria. As noted above, it also recently signed a USD 7.1 million supply contract with a Finnish firm (which cannot be named under the agreement).
But the reality of Nigeria’s weak electricity system is a serious threat to the planned scale-up. "We have everything a factory needs to function efficiently except electricity supply,” says Esse. “All our manufacturing equipment use three-phase power, meaning three live power wires are connected at the same time to the machine. If, for whatever reason, one power wire doesn’t have electricity, the machine is doomed to fail.” It is important to grasp that when Esse speaks of power outages, it is not for a few minutes or even a few hours: often they last a week, which has impacts for operations, the business model and eventual costs to customers. Knowing that such outages WILL happen, Esse has a Plan B to keep the factory running. “We rely on diesel generators and a bit of solar power,” he says. “But there is a limit to how we can use solar panels because it [the cost] is going to be way above our budget. Because our generators are quite heavy, they consume a lot of energy…so purchasing diesel becomes a huge running cost.” Esse estimates the company spends about 20% of its monthly budget on diesel, solar and electricity bills – which “drills holes in our pockets.” In the times he does have to switch on diesel generators, Esse ramps up production, aiming to put out more cookstoves to keep the energy cost per unit relatively low. Ultimately, energy costs have to be factored in to final costs, which can make the stove affordable to fewer people. Unreliability of electricity and high tariffs pose a huge challenge to small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) across Nigeria and other lower income countries, stalling growth and undermining performance. The Manufacturers Association of Nigeria estimates that 70% of industries rely on diesel fuel to some degree. With the price now at USD 1.76 per litre, many manufacturers are running just one 8-hour shift instead three, according to the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria.
Getting around the problem of perception, planning for growth
While many people are intrigued by his work and purchase the stoves, Esse says one of his biggest tests has been the lack of belief in locally grown ideas and manufactured products.
"It was a challenge for us in the first three years,” says Esse. “When they see it, they will be happy and when you tell them that you produced it, they will start trying to pick holes.”
However, hope is on the horizon.
"We've been able to overcome that towards the end of 2021. LPG use was gaining ground before COVID-19 but during the pandemic, gas prices kept going up. So, a lot of families kept falling back [to solid fuels]. This created a lot of opportunities for us. More people are beginning to realise the entrepreneurial abilities of a Nigerian and how this can be used to solve socioeconomic problems.”
They also learned an important point about how women cook – i.e. that they are willing to add new devices but reluctant to let go of traditional methods.
"In Nigerian households, you don't displace stoves,” says Esse. “When we understood this, we said we have minimum of 30 million households. So, it is a huge market. Those who have used our products have referred us, which validates our top quality."
‘Word of mouth’ support is growing beyond women speaking from kitchen to kitchen. With investors and governments now talking, it is driving the firm's ambitious plan to grow into a pan-African company, leveraging the fact that biomass pellets produced in Africa are the cheapest in the world.
"We have a blueprint for moving outside Nigeria, which is joint ventures development,” says Esse. “In the last two months, we have seen 11 African countries giving us greenlight to come and set up. We come with the know-how and the proprietary technologies, but we need local drivers to complement what we bring."