Impact Hub Amsterdam members African Clean Energy (ACE) recently won first place in the Dutch edition of the Chivas the Venture social entrepreneurship competition. ACE will be advancing to the Chivas the Venture grand final in Los Angeles, which will see them going head to head with 29 other social enterprises from all over the world. And the stakes are high, as the winner of the final’s pitch battle will receive significant funding to invest in their impact business. To celebrate ACE’s success, we asked the company’s very own Judith Walker, ACE’s Head of Operations, to share the company’s growth story, plans for the future, and a few words of advice for the budding impact maker.

African Clean Energy wants clean cooking and sustainable energy for everyone

4 million people die each year because of inhaling indoor smoke caused by cooking on open fires. And that’s not the only destructive effect of open-fire cooking, which also leads to increased poverty, as stove fuel costs amount to nearly 20 per cent of a family’s budget, and environmental damage, with 18 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions generated by open fire cooking. To top this off, many households in Sub-Saharan Africa lack electricity access and need to rely on kerosene for lighting, thus making this challenge even more complex and limiting access to modern solutions.

Enter African Clean Energy (ACE), a social enterprise whose mission is to enable clean cooking and sustainable energy in Sub-Saharan Africa and beyond. They produce an ultra-clean, high-tech cook stove, ACE 1, which ensures smoke-free, clean cooking thanks to its efficient combustion of biomass fuels. In addition, the ACE 1 stove also helps people charge their mobile phones and provides LED lighting via solar power.

“We decided to put the focus on the customer and better understanding their needs through data we gathered directly from them, rather than assuming we know better.”

Customer data collection spurred ACE’s business growth

Though they started working on clean stoves in 2011, ACE’s business made real progress in 2014, with the launch of their very own ACE 1 stove. The company started with two people, father and son co-founders Stephen and Ruben Walker. Stephen’s daughter, Judith Walker, also joined the company in 2014 to lead the operations when they launched the ACE 1 stove. They now have 65 team members worldwide, primarily in Lesotho, where they have an office and their flagship factory.

The key to their 2016 growth was data collection. The sales team interviews the customers after each contact with ACE and they gather in-depth information about their clients’ needs. This data proved crucial for improving their business strategy and helping ACE scale their enterprise.

As Judith says: “We decided to put the focus on the customer and better understanding their needs through data we gathered directly from them, rather than assuming we know better.”

“The Impact Hub is a safe, friendly and inspiring environment and it is the personal connection that really helped us grow our business.”

An investment facilitated by the Impact Hub helped ACE grow their business

Data collection was a definite game changer for ACE, but another milestone in their journey was an investment from the BMW Foundation. This investment was the result of an introduction to the Foundation by Tatiana Glad, co-founder and director of Impact Hub Amsterdam. With the investment they scaled up the production and launched in Cambodia as well.

“The Impact Hub is a safe, friendly and inspiring environment and it is the personal connection that really helped us grow our business,” Judith believes.

“Imagine you’d only tried something for 1 month and fell 4 days short of success. We now try to think more about the long term and track our achievements over time.”

ACE learned that being successful and effecting change takes time and determination

Running a business is hard enough. Working in other cultures and trying to bring about change is even harder. Through their data collection process, ACE learned that, on average, it takes 34 days before customers in Lesotho buy their stove after first hearing about it.

“Success doesn’t happen overnight.” Judith advises. “We didn’t know it took 34 days to acquire a customer until a few months into our data collection pilot. Imagine you’d only tried something for 1 month and fell 4 days short of success. We now try to think more about the long term and track our achievements over time.”

ACE’s future is looking bright with scaling in Cambodia on the horizon

ACE has already manufactured and distributed 41,000 high-tech clean cookstoves, including 16,500 of their very own ACE 1. They are calling this a real life Win-Win-Win Business Model for each stake holder, and are eager to convince others that this kind of social impact focused business is way of the future. Their next step is to scale in Cambodia, and show that there is a strong demand in Asia for high-tech African goods.

Curious to know more about ACE and their solutions?

Would you like to learn about ACE’s vision on improving livelihoods in emerging economies? On February 2nd, Impact Hub Amsterdam is hosting another edition of its Thursday Drinks, which will kick off with a short talk by ACE co-founder Ruben Walker. Please join us to meet this inspiring family business and to reconnect with your fellow impact makers.

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