In Haiti, where 80 percent of the country’s 10 million people live on less than $2 a day, every dollar counts.
That’s what Haitian social entrepreneur Duquesne Fednard had in mind nearly three years ago when his company, D&E Green Enterprises, started to make energy-efficient charcoal stoves in the Caribbean nation.
Most Haitians use charcoal to cook, spending roughly a quarter of their annual income on buying charcoal, says Fednard.
Reducing that amount can make a real difference in how much families get to eat and whether or not children go to school, he says.
“The number one impact of our EcoRecho cook stoves is that users are able to cut their energy costs. The impact is immediate. Our stove uses 50 percent less charcoal than traditional Haitian cooking stoves, and it can reduce CO2 emissions by 60 percent,” Fednard told Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview from Miami, on his return to the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.
“The stove is more energy efficient because it reduces the loss of heat. This means cash savings of US$150 a year for a family, based on cooking one meal a day. The less a family spends on fuel means more money can be spent on school and their businesses,” he said.
Using charcoal, which comes from cutting down trees, brings with it major environmental consequences.
Decades of deforestation have left Haiti with less than two percent of its original forest cover and has led to soil erosion and severe flooding, Fednard said.
“Using less charcoal to cook a meal can reduce the impact of deforestation,” said Fednard, a graduate from the State University of New York and Columbia University in the United States.
The EcoRecho stove, made from metal and clay, is inspired by a similar energy-efficient stove Fednard came across in Ghana.
While traditional cooking stoves in Haiti cost $3 to $20, the EcoRecho stove retails at $8.67, he said.
“The true cost of the stove is $14. We sell it at a subsidised price,” he said, adding that the stoves are sold in the streets and markets of Port-au-Prince by the company’s 25 distributors.
The product is proving popular with both women and men.
“Women are buying the stoves, but also men are buying them for their wives because they know it will save them money,” Fednard said.
Along with cash savings and environmental benefits, the EcoRecho stove can also help reduce health problems, particularly among women who do most of the cooking.
Inhaling fumes from burning charcoal can lead to chronic, and even, fatal respiratory disease, and is a leading factor behind Haiti’s high child mortality rate, Fednard explained.
Born and raised in Haiti, Fednard says he saw virtually no progress made by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working there to combat poverty and create jobs - in a country thought to have the second highest number of NGOs per capita in the world.
It’s the failure of foreign aid over decades, he says, that drove him to set up his company.
“I am critical of NGOs in Haiti because they haven’t created long-term and sustainable solutions. After 50 years of NGOs, we’ve seen no impact on the ground,” Fednard said.
“The NGO model, which is accountable to donors and not to the people it serves, is broken. That’s the statement I want to make with my company. When donor money runs out, a project stops. You can’t have an economy based on NGOs. Foreign aid has created a culture of dependency.”
Instead Fednard believes development should focus on using local talent and raw materials, which create jobs in the marketplace.
“You can solve social issues through a market-based approach,” he said.
HIT BY NATURAL DISASTERS
The company has sold 36,000 stoves over the past three years, but it hasn’t been easy.
Natural disasters have hit the company hard in recent years.
First, there was the massive earthquake in 2010. Along with much of Port-au-Prince, the company’s newly-built stove factory was reduced to rubble.
The company then continued producing stoves by hand under makeshift tents, until last year’s Hurricane Sandy destroyed those as well.
“After our stove factory was destroyed in the earthquake, I was about to pack my bags and go to New York. But the people who worked at the factory showed up at its doors every day. They showed such resilience. I had to keep on going,” Fednard said.
These days, his employees work in the open air - under the sun and rain.
“We need a decent space. That’s why we are fundraising to build a new $300,000 factory. We’re $200,000 short,” said Fednard.
He hopes the new factory will allow the company to produce up to 160,000 stoves a year, distribute more widely across Haiti and create at least another 85 jobs.
“We aim to provide a dignified path out of poverty by taking a holistic approach. At our company, people are given a meal, health insurance and stipends for education,” Fednard said.
He is convinced that the future of Haiti depends on Haitians, and social entrepreneurs like himself, taking charge.
“We can’t rely on aid and NGOs. Development has to be Haitian led. We need to take leadership of the future of Haiti.”