BioLite: Delivering Energy Access to Millions
BioLite manufactures and distributes affordable, durable, off-grid products for cooking, lighting, and charging electrical devices across over 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Dr. Ethan Kay, BioLite’s Managing Director for Emerging Markets, spoke with the Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA) about BioLite’s unique model, recent growth, and the opportunities and challenges to scale presented by carbon finance.
This interview is part of a series of conversations CCA is having with business leaders across the clean cooking sector.
Clean Cooking Alliance (CCA): Tell us about BioLite’s different products and services.
Ethan Kay (Kay): BioLite develops and manufactures clean energy products for off-grid households around the world. Our product categories are cooking, charging, and lighting. We work with two different customer segments: households who are off-grid by circumstance, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa, and households who are off-grid by choice, in the camping context and primarily based in the United States, Europe, and Japan.
Since starting the business, BioLite has delivered clean energy access to over six million people in emerging markets. We delivered more energy access to new households in the last two years than we did in all of the proceeding 11 years combined. The scale of our impact has been exponential.
CCA: What makes BioLite’s approach unique?
Kay: For starters, our design principle is to meet users where they are in terms of the fuels and cooking methods they’re familiar with. Most people in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia continue to cook with solid biomass, so the technologies we’ve commercialized rely on those same fuels, except we aim to dramatically improve the combustion levels associated with them. For example, our first product, the HomeStove, uses unprocessed wood that is fed into the side of the stove, which caters to households who are used to cooking on a three-stone fire. However, it saves over 90% of the smoke—and also co-generates electricity to charge phones and lighting.
CCA: How does serving these two customer segments—those “by circumstance” and those “by choice”—create challenges and opportunities for BioLite?
Kay: Let me start with the opportunities. In the early days of BioLite, the revenues from outdoor recreation products provided the one-time market establishment cost for us to get the emerging markets business off the ground and to scale until it could stand on its own commercially. I’m excited to share that our emerging markets business is now roughly twice the size of our camping business.
This dual model has also been helpful in our marketing. Many of our outdoor recreation customers value buying products from a mission-oriented company. And if you are a customer “by circumstance,” you want to make sure you’re being sold high quality, modern, durable, aspirational products—and one marker of that is how the same business and brand are delivering products to wealthy customers in the US and Europe who are overwhelmed with choice and still chose BioLite products.
On the challenges side, it means we have two different customer segments we need to design products for, market to, and engage with. It adds more complexity to the business. But I think, on balance, it’s been the right decision for BioLite. We knew it would take considerable time and funding to scale an emerging markets business. That said, our early success selling camping products enabled us to attract the capital and operating talent we needed to be successful in the long-term in emerging markets.
CCA: How have carbon markets impacted BioLite business model?
Kay: One of the challenges BioLite has faced is that our products are more aspirational, and hence more expensive, than most locally manufactured stoves. Our JikoMalkia, for example, is a premium charcoal stove that has a very large cooktop and cuts charcoal consumption by 75 percent compared to less modern products, but there’s a cost that comes with that.
We’ve used carbon finance to reduce wholesale and retail pricing, making our stoves affordable to households across income levels. Carbon finance has helped us widen access and drive scale, which then becomes a virtuous cycle.
All that is predicated on strength and stability in carbon markets, which has not been the case recently. That said, we’ve built some relatively conservative assumptions into our financial models so we can continue maintaining price security for customers, even if there’s volatility in the carbon markets.
CCA: What do you see as BioLite’s key growth milestones in the next few years?
Kay: We’re looking to widen our footprint across sub-Saharan Africa since, up until the middle of 2022, almost all our cookstove volume was in Kenya. Through the deep distribution partnerships we’ve built in about 20 countries on the solar side of our business, we feel like we have a natural entry point into expanding our clean cooking business.
CCA: How do you see BioLite, and the clean cooking sector more broadly, developing over the next five to ten years?
Kay: I think the elephant in the room is whether a ton of carbon will be worth $3 or $50. If it’s $3, we’re back to a sector that’s really struggling to find its footing and to be financially self-sufficient. If it’s $10 or more, it’s a healthy business. And if it’s $50, we have some interesting philosophical questions as an industry to ask about how to price stoves, and how to make sure the end users who are generating these carbon credits are benefitting from the value created. I’ve worked on clean cooking for nearly two decades and I was never as bullish on cooking as I was in 2022. And that was, for better or for worse, singularly a factor of stronger carbon markets. Yet that bullishness was short-lived, as the sector has recently faced heightened scrutiny on carbon methodologies, potential carbon taxes, and lower credit prices.
For BioLite more generally, we’ll continue to invest in our cooking business, rolling out new products in the years ahead. We recently launched the home energy side of our business, with big batteries either for off-grid or weak grid contexts where there’s lots of load shedding. Over time, you could see these being paired with clean energy products like induction cookers. We are very excited by the potential of scaling clean cooking.
CCA: Do you have any advice for other clean cooking companies or clean cooking adjacent companies?
Kay: At the risk of being cliché, I would say that entrepreneurship is an extraordinary journey. I can’t think of a better use of the last 12 years of my life than trying to help address the problem of energy poverty, and particularly clean cooking. I’m sure other clean energy entrepreneurs feel that way, too. And, for those who are considering entering this field, they should realize what a rich gift it is to tackle problems that are, on one hand, complicated and relentless and, on the other hand, gratifying and impactful.