By Peter S. Goodman
Mukamurenzi Anasthasie leaving an Inyenyeri store in western Rwanda with a bag of wood pellets for her cleaner-burning Inyenyeri stove. (Diana Zeyneb Alhindawi for The New York Times)
Eric Reynolds will tell you that he is on the verge of freeing much of humanity from the deadly scourge of the cooking fire. He can halt the toxic smoke wafting through African homes, protect what is left of the continent’s forest cover and help rescue the planet from the wrath of climate change.
He is happy to explain how he will systematically achieve all this while constructing a business that can amass billions in profit from an unlikely group of customers: the poorest people on earth.
“A lot of people think it’s too good to be true,” says Mr. Reynolds, a California-born entrepreneur living in Rwanda.
The company he is building in Rwanda, Inyenyeri, aims to replace Africa’s overwhelming dependence on charcoal and firewood with clean-burning stoves powered by wood pellets. It has more than 5,000 customers and needs perhaps 100,000 to break even. Even its chief operating officer, Claude Mansell, a veteran of the global consulting company Capgemini, wonders how the story will end. “Do we know that it’s going to work?” he asks. “I don’t know. It’s never been done before.”
Inyenyeri presents a real-world test of an idea gaining traction among those focused on economic development — that profit-making businesses may be best positioned to deliver critical services to the world’s poorest communities. “Profit feeds impact at scale,” said Mr. Reynolds, now in the midst of a global tour as he courts investment on top of the roughly $12 million he has already raised. “Unless somebody gets rich, it can’t grow.”
More than four decades have passed since Mr. Reynolds embarked on what he portrays as an accidental life as an entrepreneur, an outgrowth of his fascination with mountaineering. He dropped out of college to start Marmot, the outdoor gear company named for the burrowing rodent. There, he profited by protecting Volvo-driving, wine-sipping weekend warriors against the cold of Aspen, Colorado. Now, he is trying to build a business centered on customers for whom turning on a light is a radical act of upward mobility.
Inyenyeri is betting that it can give away stoves and make money by charging people for fuel. If it succeeds, it vows to deliver virtues that go beyond profit. The forests would be spared, because making wood pellets requires fewer trees than wood fires and charcoal. Customers would gain a reprieve from ailments related to cooking smoke, including heart disease and respiratory problems. Worldwide, close to four million people die prematurely each year from ailments linked to air pollution from cooking, according to the World Health Organization.
People in rural areas of Rwanda — and, eventually, across Africa and South Asia — would be freed from looking for wood. People in cities, who rely on charcoal, could switch to cheaper wood pellets.
In much of the developing world, environmental initiatives tend to pit poor people against the protection of natural resources. Peasants in the Amazon are supposed to stop hacking away at forests to clear land for crops so the rest of the planet can benefit from a reduction in carbon emissions. Yet in Inyenyeri’s designs, the everyday concerns of poor households are aligned with environmental imperatives, because people prefer to cook with the stoves.
Mr. Reynolds, 66, can at times sound like the latest white man come to save Africa. “It’s just outrageous that we have three billion people still cooking in the Stone Age,” he says. He touts his ability to connect with customers, the women who do the cooking in Rwanda, though even after a decade living in the country he does not speak the local language, Kinyarwanda. He sits on the dirt floors of villagers’ homes and speaks English slowly and loudly.
Rwandan women trust him, he says, because he married one. He displays the proof — pictures of his wife, Mariam Uwizeyimana Reynolds, 32, and their two boys, Terry Toulumne Reynolds, 6, and Marc Booth Reynolds, 3.
On a recent evening, he visits Buzuta village, a scattering of mudwall huts on a rutted dirt road in western Rwanda. He sits opposite Mukamurenzi Anasthasie, who is rearing two grandchildren and two orphans in a house without plumbing or electricity.
For most of her 60 years, Ms. Anasthasie watched the daylight seep away, anxious that darkness might fall before she could find enough wood to cook a meal. The forests that once surrounded her village had been dismantled. She and her neighbors wandered for hours into the surrounding mountains looking for sticks.
“Sometimes, we’d just collect dry grasses and try to cook with those,” she says. “Sometimes — especially if it rained — we just didn’t eat.”
Two years ago, Ms. Anasthasie traded her cooking fire for an Inyenyeri stove, a red cylinder holding a chamber to burn pellets. She no longer spends her day worrying about wood. She and the children have been relieved of their constant coughing. She can put beans on to simmer and do something else.
In Mr. Reynolds’s telling, his career in business was born of a simple desire to sleep comfortably. It was the early 1970s, and he was 21 years old, studying at the University of California, Santa Cruz, yet spending most of his time scaling the walls of the Yosemite Valley. He and his climbing partner were unhappy with their bulky sleeping bags. They began sewing their own. Mr. Reynolds left school to pursue Marmot full time. Revenues multiplied, but he was restless. “At the end of the day,” he says, “all we really did was keep yuppies warm and dry.”
He left Marmot in 1987, passing the years scaling peaks from the Andes to the Himalayas while based in Boulder, Colorado. He worked for a few businesses and consulted. A friend was helping design a memorial to victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. She invited Mr. Reynolds to help. In March 2007, he went to the village that held the memorial.
The country he traversed was raw and broken. Thirteen years had passed since the wave of murder that had killed perhaps 800,000 people in 100 days, yet Rwanda was still seething with grief and distrust. The infant mortality rate was one of the highest on earth. Life expectancy was less than 60 years. The typical Rwandan had an income of $206 per year.
As Mr. Reynolds visited villagers, he was struck by their daily existence. Clean drinking water was nonexistent. So were electricity and toilets. Fires wafted up from supposedly protected forests. Hills once covered in rain forest were denuded and exposed to the elements. Rivers were choked with brown silt, the soil and nutrients stripped off the land by pounding rains.
All this, to produce fuel that was quietly killing hundreds of thousands of people. “There is nothing in the house that causes as much suffering as cooking,” Mr. Reynolds says. “It’s dirty. It’s smoky. Momma is there with the baby on her back, and both are coughing.”
He returned to Boulder and studied cooking practices and stove technology. Philanthropic efforts were focused on distributing cleaner-burning stoves. For-profit ventures were developing models for sale. But the high-tech stoves that limited toxic smoke were as much as $150 each — preposterously expensive for African villagers. To succeed, a stove had to be so convenient that women preferred it over their existing cooking method.
Mr. Reynolds came to realize that the magic was in the combination of stove and fuel. He experimented and discovered wood pellets, which involve compressing wood and eliminating water, the element that produces much of the smoke. He settled on a Dutch-made stove that reduces wood down to clean-burning gases. Using pellets reduced the need for wood by 90 percent compared with charcoal. But those stoves cost more than $75.
Then came an epiphany: Inyenyeri could supply free stoves while collecting revenue from subscriptions for pellets. “If you sell fuel every day rather than selling a stove every two years,” Mr. Reynolds says, “that’s a business.”
Customers in rural areas could not afford to buy pellets, but Inyenyeri could serve them with a barter system. People could gather sticks, though less than they needed for cooking, and exchange them for pellets. Inyenyeri would construct a network of factories to produce pellets, using the sticks. The bigger the business grew, the cheaper the cost of making them.
As charcoal rose in price, the more appealing pellets would look. Across the continent, charcoal is a $40 billion-a-year industry, one dominated by criminal gangs that pilfer forests and employ child labor. Rwanda’s government has vowed to phase out its use.
Inyenyeri would start in Rwanda, where the government has gained credibility with international aid organizations for its success in reducing poverty. It could use success there as a springboard for expansion across Africa. In 2010, Mr. Reynolds moved to Rwanda with no plan to leave.
Today, Inyenyeri has distribution offices in cities and villages in Rwanda. It runs a pellet plant in Gisenyi, a city on Lake Kivu, and is developing a bigger factory. Company representatives go home with new customers to help them cook their first meal using their new stoves. Inyenyeri delivers pellets for free using bicycle messengers, and is close to rolling out a system that will allow customers to place orders using a smartphone.
But in every projection, a steep increase in customer numbers is required for the business to become profitable. Inyenyeri needs to persuade investors to deliver the cash to buy hundreds of thousands of stoves and erect pellet plants.
The demand for Inyenyeri’s product appears overwhelming. Everywhere the company expands, word-of-mouth swiftly exhausts the supply of stoves. Customers speak of emancipation from smoke.
In Buzuta village, Dorcas Nyiransabimana, a mother of two, simmers beans and leaves them untended while she prepares to feed the pigs she keeps in a pen next to her house.
Twice a year, she sells piglets, fetching 15,000 Rwandan francs (about $17), an enormous sum in rural Rwanda. With her cooking fuel secured, she can spend more time scavenging for food for the pigs.
Ms. Anasthasie’s house is nearby. A low wooden table and three stools are the only furniture in her home. The red Inyenyeri stove glows like a totem of modernity. She used to be trapped by her wood fire. Now, she leaves her pot to cook and gathers banana leaves to feed to the goat she keeps tethered to a tree.
“Before, I’d find leaves for the goat and come back and not have time to cook for me and the family,” Ms. Anasthasie says. “Or I’d cook for us and the goat would not get to eat. Now, we all get to eat — us, and the goat.”