Ruben Walker On Fuelling Healthier Communities Around The World
Ruben Walker is the commercial director and co-founder of African Clean Energy (ACE).
Based out of Amsterdam, it’s his job to develop new markets for the company and its flagship product, the ACE 1 Solar Biomass Cookstove. ACE currently has subsidiaries in Lesotho, Uganda and Cambodia. The ACE 1 eliminates smoke and burns biomass highly efficiently, while providing households with electricity, which has significant implications for health, environment, and socio-economics in developing countries.
Ruben's passion is pioneering innovation in this sector; both through product development, and smart distribution methods. African Clean Energy have vertically integrated the distribution of the ACE 1 by offering mobile payment enabled credit terms to low-income households. Ruben has a degree in environmental engineering from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.
Ruben provides insights into running a global social enterprise, shares valuable experience gained in the field and talks about some of the challenges he has faced along the way.
Highlights from the interview (listen to full details on the podcast)
[Tom Allen] - Ruben could you please share a bit about your background and what led you into founding ACE? [2:07]
[Ruben Walker] - I'm an Environmental Engineer and studied at Monash University in Australia. Right after I graduated I moved to the Netherlands. In 2009 I set up a company which specialised in bamboo flooring and furniture. [Ruben explains about how he got a taste for entrepreneurship.]
An opportunity popped up. My parents were living in Southern Africa at the time. We saw this giant problem of indoor household air pollution and thought that we could do something about it. So in 2011 my father and I set up ACE and it's developed into something very interesting.
How does your solution work and how does it solve this problem? [3:43]
A lot of the problem stems from the fact that a lot of people's energy choices are very poor. [Ruben explains further.]
So what we have is a stove that can burn a lot of the fuels that people have right now but do it with a complete combustion. Meaning that some of the negative side effects of smoke and a lot of inefficiencies are eliminated. Biomass in itself is not a terrible fuel, it's just that if you burn it in a an open fire it's very harmful for a number of reasons. [Ruben explains exactly how the ACE 1 stove works.]
Did you design this from scratch or how did you come about this specific solution? [5:44]
This model we designed from scratch. [Ruben talks through the design details which includes a battery, solar panel and USB ports that can be used for LED lighting and charging mobile phones.]
What were the key challenges you faced in setting up ACE and how did you get around them? [7:00]
There were a lot of them! Obviously funding is a difficult one. Fortunately my father is an expert at setting up factories in difficult environments, so that is a bonus. Once we started getting some of the funding going we could get started and we could put out some products. The response we received back in late 2012 when the first products rolled off the production line was super positive. In fact we were outstripping our production capacity with sales, so that made it easier to continue.
There was a bit of luck involved in getting some of our early larger orders.
When we started we assumed slightly incorrectly that if you are tackling a problem like this and are making the best product on the planet that the buyers will come to you.
That happened a little bit at the beginning which fooled us into thinking it would be easier than it is. [Ruben explains about the product cost and how their customers can't really afford it, so they had to do more in terms of their distribution strategy. He talks about micro-finance.]
What we believe makes micro-finance a lot easier is mobile money. Funnily enough a lot of micro-finance providers don't have that integrated yet. A lot of micro-finance is done by people physically going around villages and collecting money which is very expensive. If you have to make enough of a margin on your micro-finance program that you can afford to do that then you need a more expensive product than $100. So we started bringing in micro-finance and that's something that's been very encouraging.
Have you partnered with anyone specific for the micro-finance? [9:50]
Initially we've partnered with Kiva for the capital. We do all the groundwork, with salespeople selling the product. [Ruben explains how it's helped them roll out their products.]
You've set up office at the Impact Hub in Amsterdam. On a daily basis which tools couldn’t you live without to successfully run the operation? [10:43]
Communication is a big one. [Ruben talks about their various locations around the world.]
Whatsapp calls have really changed my life. Skype was good but you had to have someone who was online. But Whatsapp makes it easier.
Google documents have also been very important for us but we're now at the stage where we're starting to professionalise that.
What role do the local communities have in ACE? [12:10]
One of the reasons why we have our factory in Africa is that we feel it's very important that you bring your target group into the process of manufacturing and selling the product. It fosters a lot of understanding and good will.
One of the things that Africa needs most is well paying jobs. Steady jobs. And that's something that we can provide and are proud of.
In the Netherlands have you come across any other inspirational initiatives recently which you believe are converting social and environmental problems into opportunities? [12:54]
There are a lot. But a lot of them are still very much in their stage of infancy. That's something that's sad. I wish there were a lot more growth in the field because I believe that the potential is enormous and not just in terms of impact but also in being a successful company. I'm a little worried that that's not always appreciated by all stakeholders, including investors. We've had to go abroad to pick up some investment money, although there is a notable exception.
Within Europe, what programs or initiatives exist to help social entrepreneurs get these types of ideas off the ground? [13:52]
I think there's a lot of them. I think the question is, which ones are worth doing and which ones aren't. I know there's a couple here at the Impact Hub which I've heard are very good. My fellow Director and sister Judith did the GSBI at Santa Clara University in California that was really transformative and made a big difference. Because we won the Venture competition, we'll be taking part in a program in Oxford with the Skoll Foundation, so we're very excited about that.
What are the common reasons you believe that social entrepreneurs fail? [15:09]
It's a very difficult climate. There's a hundred reasons we could have failed. By virtue of our family structure and the fact that we have certain talents and stick it out in difficult situations has taken us to situations which I think would have been quite difficult in a different type of startup team.
Running out of money. Having people within your team try to cheat you out of things. Theft or things that are a little depressing when you're having a bad day and something like that happens. For a lot of companies that could be a death knell.
There's so many difficult bridges to cross on a financial and risk level. I think it's important that the greater community has an understanding of that but also the incredible gains that can be accrued if they are successful.
We really can make a difference. The way that half the planet consumes energy is ridiculous.
[Ruben explains further, including the benefit of the USB ports and how that can provide a lot of value for the consumer.]
If you can get some of the more vulnerable communities in the world to suddenly have smart phone access, there's a huge number of new opportunities that are generated right there.
What advice would you give to students who are passionate about using their future career to create positive social change? [18:06]
I would absolutely recommend that students do something they are passionate about.
From experience I can say it makes life a lot easier. It makes difficult days a lot less difficult if what you are doing is something you're actually really passionate about and you're not just doing for the money or because you have to.
Get amongst other people who are doing things like this. Take out a few months to learn a bit. Make sure that what you're planning to do makes business sense.
That's our philosophy that these things go hand in hand. Simply because if you have no business incentive, you're unlikely to scale to a very large level. Some of these problems are so large that if you're not going to be a big company you're not really going to change anything. That's very important because I do hear a lot of concepts that I have serious questions about their business viability. Maybe for a few years because you are super enthusiastic about it you can keep it going. But once reality kicks in and you have a family or you really need money it becomes a liability to you.
Which countries or universities internationally do you believe are really leading the charge when it comes to social enterprise? [19:44]
For our sector, one of the universities that does a lot of work is Berkeley, doing a lot of work on household air pollution.
A lot of universities have the ambition and there are programs that foster that type of learning.
We feel very strongly that an important part of a great company is that you have relationships with universities.
[Ruben explains about their relationships with universities and how it benefits them.]
Do you have any projects in the pipeline that you are particularly excited about? [21:10]
I'm very excited about the potential of linking this product to smart phones. The benefits of having the internet of things link to household energy for developing countries and collecting a lot of data, there's a lot of potential there. That's where I think as a company we can really grow and take this to a truly global level.