East African company making a name for itself with energy saving cooking equipment

Kenya’s Cookswell Jikos sells energy saving stoves and charcoal ovens across East Africa. The family business is a finalist for this year’s Ashden Awards, one of the world’s top green energy prizes. Susie Kinyanjui, director at Cookswell Jikos, told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi more about their business, the opportunities in renewable energy and how people can grow trees as a cash crop to meet the demand for charcoal.

Tell us a bit more about Cookswell Jikos.

Together with my brother Teddy Kinyanjui we took over our father’s business. He started making Kenya Ceramic Jikos (KCJ) in the 80s. He started it because he saw a need for energy efficient stoves; everybody was using charcoal stoves… and he thought, “let’s try and help them use less charcoal”. We have taken over since he passed away last year.

At Cookswell Jikos we sell charcoal stoves and ovens. We have seen customers start small businesses (using Cookswell products) and then be able to send more of their kids to school… there are a lot of benefits that come into this product, which is interesting.

Who is your target market?

The KCJs are mostly for domestic use and so we find small families using them. There is a very wide range of customers for the ovens; some people use them at home and others just for business. We have had customers who have started businesses or have had long standing businesses but have switched to these [ovens] because they are tired of the cost of gas and they are tired of electricity cutting out and ruining their baking.

We also have some [safari] camps using them; they really like the portability because they take their clients on safari or go have breakfast in the bush and you can easily bring this along on the back of the pick-up. So really, we have such a wide range of people using the ovens because they are versatile; you can bake, you can roast, you can toast, you can steam and you can do vegetables. We sell primarily in urban centres in Kenya. We have more requests than we can handle for our products in the East African Community – Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and also South Sudan recently. That’s a challenge for us, to meet the demand in emerging markets.

Kenya’s middle class is growing and moving on to other sources of energy like gas and electricity. Is this a threat to your business?

We thought it would be and we were very curious to see what would happen because you are right, there is this connotation that charcoal is dirty. We have a lot of customers from the middle class, who use gas and electricity, who come to us and say “I am just tired of it, power is not reliable”. Cost is still a problem and there is also something about what they know; people say, “I don’t want to roast my nyama choma (roast meat) on gas; I want to go back to charcoal”.

Preparing food with a Cookswell Jiko charcoal oven on a bush safari.

Preparing food with a Cookswell Jiko charcoal oven on a bush safari.

Encouraging people to use charcoal means that more trees are going to be cut down. What about the environment?

This whole idea of deforesting for fuel doesn’t have to be that way and I wish that more of us would talk about that because trees, charcoal and firewood are renewable resources. We don’t have to worry about it running out like oil or gas or coal; it is something that we can manage very effectively. It is all about responsible management.

We have shown time and time again with our charcoal kiln as part of this ‘seed to charcoal cycle’ that… if you are making your charcoal from trees that have not been cut down, only trimming the branches… then you don’t have to contribute to deforestation. You can grow your own trees… or trim somebody else’s trees. We teach people how to make their own charcoal at home with our kilns… we’ve found that it’s not just branches that you can do it with; maize cobs, coconut husks and bamboo work very well and the difference in terms of fuel for stoves is minimal. With every product that we sell, we provide a packet of indigenous tree seeds (200 of them) for our customers to plant. We have also partnered with The Woodlands 2000 Trust… they teach people how to grow trees for money. We have found you can make a lot of money with trees… all you need is patience because they take time to grow. We have spent a lot of time promoting this idea of tree planting as a cash crop.

Describe the challenges you face.

One of our biggest challenges, which I think is a good challenge to have, is it’s difficult for us to meet demand. It’s hard for us to even keep things in our showroom. My father was approached by a lot of investors who wanted to mechanise the [production] process and I think, for all of us, the risk in doing that is that it becomes too big of an industry where the quality might change.

Honestly, we want to know our customers. We are growing quite fast… one thing that we have captured over the last six months is that some customers also want advice and suggestions on how to run and manage certain aspects of their businesses. We are designing a business tool kit that has business advice and case studies of some of our customers. That is something that might have escaped us had we become this huge entity ten years ago. Probably, that is the biggest thing that motivates us to pace our growth… we want to make sure that we are continuing to do it well… and have that interaction with our customers, because it’s fascinating. There is so much to learn from people.

Selling this tree planting and management idea to other people is also a challenge. We really want people to understand that charcoal doesn’t have to be bad for the environment. It is a renewable resource and we can make it responsibly.

What advice would you give other entrepreneurs?

If I would solely think of my own experience, I would say listen to your parents… go and ask people who have been doing this here for longer than you have… because there is a wealth of information there.

Another thing would be to work hard and not lose faith when there are struggles. It is very challenging in this environment… but if you just keep sight of what you want to do… you will pass that obstacle.

The third thing would be to celebrate our achievements… look at what is good, look at what is working. There is a lot of good stuff here. We need to see that more on our newspapers and TV channels. Look for the positive success stories; they are there, they are inspiring, and they will help you wake up and do your work every day.