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The secrets of green energy entrepreneurs

by Julia Hawkins

Julia Hawkins tells the Ecologist about the new generation of green energy champions in town.....

These people are as diverse in their background as they are in the solutions they have found

Gone are the days when your average green activist wore open-toed sandals and a hair shirt. Now many of them wear sharp suits and are just as happy talking the language of profit and loss as they are discussing carbon emissions and climate change. These are the 'ecopreneurs' - individuals with a big social conscience but also a keen eye for business

All of the finalists for this year’s Ashden Awards are united by a desire for social good. In the UK this includes helping reduce fuel poverty and making buildings more energy efficient, while internationally, there’s a greater focus on providing poor people with access to safe, clean energy, or helping conserve natural resources.

The new generation of ‘ecopreneurs’ in the running for this year’s (2013) Ashden Awards include:

Duquesne Fednard from Haiti, whose company D&E Green Enterprises is selling affordable quick-cooking cookstoves to Haiti’s poor, helping reduce fuel poverty and reduce the pressure on Haiti’s precious remaining forests.

Simon Bramsfield-Garth, CEO of UK cleantech startup Azuri Technologies, which has developed a pay-as-you-go interface which allows households in Africa to pay for simple solar home systems with scratchcards.

Yoav Zingher, CEO of UK cleantech company KiWi Power, which works with clients to enable them to benefit from a National Grid scheme which pays clients ranging from supermarkets to hospitals to turn down non-essential power during spikes in demand.

Evan Haigler Executive Director of Impact Carbon. The Californian not-for-profit works with life-saving stove and water filter enterprises to access carbon finance and help build their businesses, making safe and efficient products more affordable for people who want to buy them.

John Doggart,
Director of the Sustainable Energy Academy, who in partnership with social housing developer and contractor United House has developed a safe, low-fuss measurement and installation process that allows the UK’s solid-walled properties to be rapidly insulated.

These people are as diverse in their background as they are in the solutions they have found to tackling the world’s energy problems. Yet they all share a set of unique characteristics that typify the new generation of green energy entrepreneur.

These characteristics are:

A focus on business

Business-like approaches typify many of our finalists: including developing products that people actually want to buy, finding customers to buy them – as well as making sure the numbers add up.

Cleantech entrepreneur Yoav Zingher sums things up well: “People make the mistake of seeing cleantech as a class in its own. It’s not – it’s a business, and you need to think about it as one. You need to create a product that your customer really wants. Other companies might develop interesting products, but then nobody buys them.”

Low-carbon building inventor John Doggart is equally aware of the importance of putting the customer first: “We wrote our sales brochure before we did anything else. That’s because we wanted to make sure our offer was so attractive it was a no-brainer for people to buy it.”

Even Impact Carbon, although a not-for-profit , is a firm believer in the power of business:  “Entrepreneurialism is in our DNA”, says Haigler.

Vision

Having a clear vision is also key. This is particularly true for Duquesne Fednard, who managed to keep his Haitian cookstoves company going despite being beset by successive natural disasters: “Having a clear vision and being persistent in working to achieve your vision is vital – and that’s true for any entrepreneur, not just a green one.”

Bramsfield Garth also has a clear vision of how his product will help people progressively pay their way out of poverty. “There’s an escalator effect – people start by getting a small solar home system, which helps them improve their standard of living – then once they've paid that off they’re able to buy a bigger system. They can earn their way into a better life".

But thinking big should not come at the expense of getting the specifics right. Doggart says: “First you need to think big, but that shouldn't be at the expense of getting the detail right – you have to think about both ends of the scale.”

A creative approach to distribution

One of the biggest challenges for green energy businesses is reaching their customers – particularly if they’re working in remote rural areas in developing countries where people can’t just go to their local shop to buy an improved cookstove or solar lantern. Creative thinking is essential.

Says Fednard: “We used guerilla tactics in creating a distribution network. We decided to work with people who are selling groceries in markets. We recruit and train them in accounting, business, marketing skills and so on - and let them sell our stoves. They make around $1-2 on every stove they sell, making it a viable business proposition for them.”

Belief in partnerships

Working in partnership with other organisations and businesses is also vital in helping smaller companies punch above their weight. Many of our finalists say that working with partners helps their ideas scale up far more rapidly than if they were working on their own.

Azuri overcomes geographical distance from the companies it works with by using cloud technology as a distribution management tool, so its Kenyan partner has real time information about their customers and the equipment they’re using, as well as access to training materials – all of which is aimed at helping their own business grow. Says Bramsfield-Garth: "We see our partners in Kenya as an integral part of our business rather than just distributors. That helps us get to market more rapidly.”

That’s also why John Doggart has teamed up with social housing contractor and developer United House to market his insulation product. “Finding skilled partners and then developing ways of working together is as vital for us as it would be for any other organisation wanting to create an impact.” 

Partnership is also key for Haigler. “It’s the way to reach not just tens of thousands of households, but hopefully hundreds of millions – which is the scale that’s needed when we’re talking about increasing access to clean energy at a global level.”

Finding innovative solutions to global challenges

This year’s green energy champions are also firm believers in the power of technological innovation in finding new solutions to global problems. According to Doggart his innovative spirit is down to his immigrant parents: “Immigrants tend to look to the future rather than the past.” He’s been involved in green building innovation for many years, which, he says, has “helped me be able to see problems in a different way.”

Azuri’s pay-as-you-go controller for its solar home systems is also an innovation. It’s activated by weekly scratchcard payments, which helps spread the cost of solar systems – making them affordable to people living off the electric grid. With 110 million Africans living off-grid, this represents a huge potential market to be tapped.

Julia Hawkins is PR and Digital Media Manager for Ashden, a charity that champions and promotes practical, local energy solutions that cut carbon, protect the environment, reduce poverty and improve people’s lives.

The Ashden Awards are on 20 June 2013 and will be webcast on green.tv from 7pm. The Ashden Conference: ‘Are we on the brink of a sustainable energy revolution?’ is on 19 June at the Royal Society, Carlton Terrace. Find out more and book tickets here
 

Follow #Ashden13 on twitter.

 

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