A clean energy crisis: One Burkina Faso social business aims to address it

Interview with Sayouba Guira

Director of Nafa Naana, a social enterprise providing clean cooking and lighting products

Location: Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso

“It’s a crisis, but we are in a country with so many other priorities that people don’t talk about it, which is why we are doing something about promoting clean and affordable energy solutions”

One of Sayouba Guira’s cars has broken down. Typical, he says—his work requires him to travel across Burkina Faso. 80% of the population of 17 million live in rural areas, and rural roads are a challenge, where it can sometimes take 30 or 40 km to reach a school or a hospital. Guira’s cause is to raise awareness of the dangers of indoor air pollution caused by cooking with firewood – which 85% of people do. “Part of Burkina is located in the Sahel region, which is a desert region, and every year more than 100,000 hectares of forest disappears because 90% of the population still use firewood for cooking”. The economics graduate and former president of youth organisation AIESEC always knew he wanted to work with people. As he puts it, “it made me believe in human beings, and in potential”.

Guira is director at Nafa Naana, which means “easily made gains”. The social enterprise started out as a project launched by the French NGO Entrepreneurs du Monde (“Entrepreneurs of the World”) in 2009, in the south west region of Burkina Faso. After selling over 6,000 cookstoves in its initial project phase, it officially became a social business in 2012. “Entrepreneurs du Monde worked on micro finance activities in Burkina; low-income people were using petrol a lot, an important part of the budget they allocated to energy. It was even more expensive in urban areas where we had electricity, which is why we started to think about supporting women with cookstoves and solar lighting equipment”. The facts and numbers on energy poverty in Burkina Faso make a strong enough case for themselves. Whilst the safest option for a cooking stove would be to use electricity. “You have zero smoke, but only 14% of Burkinabes have access to electricity. Even in the capital, Ouagadougou, we have electricity problems”.

The next most popular option would be for people to use gas cookstoves, despite the fact that the gas distribution network needs development. Over 11,000 gas stoves have been sold since 2010. “But in villages, they say that gas is dangerous, so we then try to encourage them to use improved cookstoves”.  Almost 18,000 improved cookstoves have been sold since 2010. For Guira, awareness campaigns are absolutely necessary. Business-wise, they don’t bring in money by themselves, “but we see the impact they have in getting the message across”, he adds. People have to stop using cooking stoves that pollute the air indoors for health reasons—according to the World Health Organisation, 45 people die every day from smoke inhalation—and also for the environment, in the number of at least 208,000 tons in saved carbon emissions. Other stoves use charcoal and wood.

Solutions to age-old problems

It’s not that people aren’t receptive to the problems. They want solutions to age-old problems. Guira often focuses on women, who in a more patriarchal society, will be the ones using cooking stoves. The women who collect shea nuts together to make butter, or collect cotton together, or make local juices together, or farm and sell their crops together—carrots, onions, tomatoes—they are enlightened and support each other, he says. “When they are happy or comfortable with the relationship that we have, sometimes we find that after an information session, they will also request training on financial management, or on how to deal with environmental problems. They have a whole network of needs, and we also connect them to other organisations, such as social micro-finance institutions to get credit loans”.

Surveys are done annually from a database collected of everyone who has bought one of Nafa Naana’s 40 products. The lowest-price stove is 3,000 CFA, or US$6, and the over 7,000 solar products that have been sold since 2012 cost US$10-40 a piece. Incredibly, Guira says that their own surveys showed that sometimes up to a quarter of a villager’s budget was going to expensive, polluting energy to power lights and kitchens. Customers are offered the option of paying in instalments too, to ease the financial burden. “We need working capital to buy and sell the product and wait three months for the money to come back in. We also run focus groups with the people who would use the products, again, mainly women; quality control is important for us, as is their feedback”.

“It’s a crisis, but we are in a country with so many other priorities that people don’t talk about it, which is why we are doing something about promoting clean and affordable energy solutions”, says Guira. “Those solutions for us will come in clean cooking stoves and lighting equipment. Women are the most affected by this and do not have the power to change society because they do not make the decisions. So, the government is not really aware of this. High-income people do not cook, in general, and have electricity, so anytime we have the opportunity to discuss the impact this has, we go for it”. Things are changing, says Guira.

Word of mouth

Guira, who is from the village of Mane to the north of the capital, is seeing evidence of how a smart villages should look. Where once a village he drove into would greet him with a host of petrol lamps, and now he is seeing the effect of solar lamps in most homes within a month, an initiative which thankfully, the government supports. Word of mouth works, he says. The NGO is present in three main regions, Centre, Hauts-Bassins and Sud-Ouest, but has had activities across the 13 regions of the country. Guira estimates that more activity takes place in the villages closer to the capital.

Nafa Naana is structured as a social enterprise that focuses its revenue via a three-pronged stream. Firstly, there is the gross margin of the products that are sold. The business is sustainable, says Guira, also thanks to selling services to other companies and organisations, such as training or additional awareness campaigns. Finally, there is also a carbon budget, where credits will be sold. Of course, there is extra funding from partner foundations who support Nafa Naana via subsidies, such as other NGOs, OFID, and the AnBer Foundation. “We are still looking for the best way to scale up. Logistics-wise, we are trying different models, because travelling around is such a challenge. We open stores in some rural areas, getting retailers and partners on the ground who we can train to promote the product on the ground”. There are currently around 85 micro-franchised retailers, and three stores, in Bobo Dialousso, Ouagadougou, and Dano.

Policymakers must turn attention to women

The social vision for Nafa Naana keeps Guira going, as he approaches his third year with the company. His work during university on community management has proved to be a guide, he says. “Policymakers need to be aware, for example, of how hard women work. The first lesson I learned from going deep into Burkina Faso is that we are not using the internal resources and the potential we have. It’s not about gold or copper, but humans in rural areas who are doing so much with such limited resources. I studied economics, and I see development as change, especially for local communities.” They key now is to strengthen Nafa Naana’s financial situation, improve on their current activities and reach more people in rural areas. “People in villages need us”.

—Nabeelah Shabbir (@lahnabee)

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