7/21/15 – This guest post is written by three GSSE MBA students who envision an entrepreneurial future involving biogas. This summer, they are partnering with the Ethiopian branch of the social business (B)energy. Biogas is a clean-burning cooking fuel generated through the decomposition of organic material such as manure, kitchen scraps, agricultural residues, and human waste. In countries that are livestock-rich and energy-poor, biogas may just be the perfect cooking solution.
Although nothing could have fully prepared us for our hands-on work in Ethiopia, our GSSE coursework equipped us with certain tools to get the most out of our time here. Most notable among these tools was IDEO’s human-centered design framework, which includes creative ways to conduct market research in foreign markets less infiltrated by western commercialism. The basic idea is that, when you are trying to provide new solutions, you need to talk to the actual people that might want those solutions in their own locales. You need to observe how people function in their everyday lives. In the end, products should satisfy needs from the perspective of their users, not from the assumptions of their inventors.
For the (B)energy team, this means leaving our office in Addis Ababa to visit rural families and businesses of many kinds: those aware and those unaware of biogas, owners of (B)energy biogas systems, owners of competitors’ systems, and people who cook in the traditional way on three-stone fuelwood fires. Our goal is two-fold. First, we want to know how people cook. What do they expect out of their cooking, where do they cook, what are they unhappy with? This will help us adapt our products to satisfy local needs. Second, we want to use these case studies to help our local partner, Yodit, by formulating a profile of the ideal Ethiopian (B)energy customer. Thus far, we have been blown away by Yodit’s capabilities. She is a fast learner with a knack for connecting to people of all kinds. She understands how the information we are gathering will be invaluable to her in the future, and she is completely capable of conducting observational interviews on her own after we leave.
One case, in particular, strengthened our faith in the powerful combination of biogas and entrepreneurial vigor. In the small village of Akaki-Kality, we found a small café with a very small manager, Shitye, who was visibly overflowing with pride. She had a reason to be proud, for her restaurant was teeming with hungry, then very full Ethiopians. The food was fast but delicious: Injera topped with colorful vegetables and sauces of all kinds. But this café was different than most. It was run by biogas!
The facilities, including the kitchen and biogas system, were all donated by a local NGO, Emmanuel Development Association in partnership with the international non-profit WaterAid. True, we at (B)energy prefer market-based solutions to charity, but we can’t help but acknowledge this particular project for its entrepreneurial spirit. The café is, in fact, now self-sustaining and employee-owned. Besides Shitye, 22 women work at the café and every one of them knows how to operate and maintain the biogas system. Yodit shared another bit of insight about these women. Before the café, they all worked as trash collectors, one of the lowliest positions in the country. They formed a self-help savings group and approached Emmanuel with their dream of owning a restaurant together. If that’s not entrepreneurial, we don’t know what is.
We left this site impressed and inspired. Perhaps small restaurants, where saving on cooking fuel means increased profits, are a great target market segment. We have learned tons about the potential for an Ethiopian biogas market, and our learnings will help us in any market we may decide to enter in the future. Our team will be gaining more Ethiopian biogas insights until early August. Follow our journey on our The Biogas Revolution Facebook Page!