Pioneering New Sustainable Markets: Mercy Corps’ Journey to 20,000 stoves
Reaching wood cookstove users at the base of the economic pyramid is the greatest challenge for the cookstove industry. How do you create a new cookstove market in rural areas to target customers who live below the poverty line? Over the past two years Mercy Corp has been working in the Dry Zone in Myanmar to overcome these challenges and build a thriving business that has empowered women, served over 20,000 families, and pioneered a new market for clean cookstoves.
Shrinking forests, smoky fires
Envirofit partnered with Mercy Corps in 2012 to supply cookstoves for the Myanmar Stoves Campaign (MSC), a joint development project with Soneva SLOW LIFE and Vitol Foundation to create access to modern, efficient cookstoves for people living in the country’s central Dry Zone. Mercy Corps performed stove trials with multiple wood cookstove models, and Envirofit’s SuperSaver wood stove was preferred by end-users because of its efficiency, ease of use and appealing design. Located in central Myanmar, the Dry Zone is surrounded by mountains on three sides, receiving 80% less rain than the wet and densely wooded southern coast. The area has been subject to rampant deforestation as trees are cut down and sold to households as fuel for cooking, usually over inefficient and smoky fires that waste up to 90% of the wood’s energy.
While similar deforestation issues unfortunately trouble many other parts of the world, Myanmar is also transitioning to civilian government after 50 years of military rule. This has left the country economically underdeveloped and lacking in infrastructure. Households in the Dry Zone live on between $12.50 and $84.00 USD per month, and the price for wood has increased as the forests diminish meaning a larger percentage of household income is required to buy cooking fuel. By introducing efficient, modern cookstoves, the Myanmar Stoves Campaign is lessening the effects of deforestation while also saving families time and money, and lowering their exposure to smoke and other toxic pollutants.
Sustainable markets for lasting impact
Mercy Corps’ goal is to establish a sales-based market for clean cookstoves because they believe that building markets that are sustainable is the key to achieving lasting change. This enterprise approach to cookstoves in Myanmar was initially met with skepticism from some in the public sector because the previous government ran a program that gave households clay cookstoves for free. Though widely available, these clay stoves were not as durable or efficient as modern cookstoves, and were not designed with input from end-users. These differences meant that people tended to think of cookstoves as something that only lasted a few months and were only somewhat useful.
Undeterred, Mercy Corps began organizing awareness campaigns and stove demonstrations to educate rural communities on the differences between a traditional stove and improved cookstoves. Equipped with Envirofit SuperSaver wood cookstoves and an unprecedented commitment to customer service, Mercy Corps’ sales agents succeeded by building relationships with the villages they served. Sales agents followed-up with customers who purchased stoves in order to ensure proper use, maintenance and functionality. This previously unavailable support helped build a group of satisfied customers who have made word-of-mouth recommendations to friends and family about the advantages of owning a modern cookstove. Over the last 2.5 years this has translated into over 20,000 stoves sold in a market where sales demand was questioned from the outset.
Empowering women and communities
Achieving this success in less than 3 years has required Mercy Corps to use every tool available to them for growing sustainable markets. In addition to employing different distribution mechanisms as necessary and using flexible payment options for customers, they have also had to recruit and train their own sales agents from communities where entrepreneurial approaches to environmental and social issues were previously unknown. Women are disproportionately marginalized in Myanmar, so MSC worked with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to conduct a Women’s Empowerment Program that has proven effective for empowering women economically and socially.
Though greater effort is required to build the skills and confidence of women who have little or no previous sales experience, the women who have completed the program have outsold male sales-agents. One top-performing female sales-agent sold 577 cookstoves in six months and made nearly $1,300 in commission. Mercy Corps also has observed that investing in women has multiplier effects, improving the lives of their families, and helping them become change agents and advocates for clean energy products in their communities and contributing to broader environmental conservation efforts. Going forward, Mercy Corps will continue playing the role of market facilitator, national supplier of stoves, and advocate for clean energy products in Myanmar, working as part of the broader alliance to establish a clean cooking sector in Myanmar.
About Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps was founded in 1979 as an international development organization whose mission is to alleviate suffering, poverty and oppression by helping people build secure, productive and just communities. They began working in Myanmar in 2008 after Cyclone Nargis, and have since expanded their focus from disaster relief to food security & market development, energy access, and peace building. Mercy Corps is active in over 40 countries around the world, adapting their approach to the unique challenges they face on national and household levels. Special thanks to Lin Lin Aung, Mercy Corps’ Program Director, Energy Access in Myanmar, for her help with this story.