Selling stoves in Burkina Faso, a humble field guide
Last week I was lucky enough to join my Entrepreneurs du Monde (EdM) colleagues on a field mission in the Ioba province of Burkina Faso, a rural area that borders Ghana. There, in the town of Dano, is a small EdM office manned by Benoit Some, who covers EdM’s Burkina Faso social enterprise arm, Nafa Naana, in the area.
The small, roadside office doubles as a storage hub and retail outlet for energy-efficient and gas cookstoves (as described in my last blog post).
Here, this March, four rural shopkeepers were given training in the Nafa Naana model — the product offering, environmental protection, stock management, cash management and sales techniques. Then in April, EdM set them up for the sale of the cookstoves, providing them with simple management tools, such as receipts and sales lists, posters and an informational leaflet to show interested customers. The organization also installed grills produced by local iron workers to lock up the cookstoves and organized four promotional events in the area to drum up interest. Then of course there were the actual cookstoves, which are supplied to the shopkeepers with interest-free advances.
Each month, Benoit of EdM followed up with the shopkeepers and collected repayments on the advances.
On this mission, we were visiting these shopkeepers to gather insights into how this distribution model was working, review the sales results to date and to consider next steps: What motivated them to sell the cookstoves? Who were their main customers? What additional materials/efforts do they think would be helpful for the sales? Are they satisfied with the working relationship with EdM? What could EdM do better? Do they wish to continue selling cookstoves? If so, why? Would they be interested in selling other socially-focused products, such as gas stoves or solar lamps?
Sales results were somewhat mixed: two shopkeepers sold an impressive 22 stoves each, while two others faced some difficulty, selling 8 and 3 respectively. The management tools were used without difficulty by the two literate shopkeepers. But, for the other two who can neither read nor write, it proved tricky (with an adult literacy rate of 28.7%, this is not an uncommon issue to tackle here in Burkina Faso).
Overall, the feedback from the discussions with the shopkeepers struck me as very positive. They were motivated by the idea of helping the environment, protecting it for the future, and of helping women to cook in a cleaner environment while saving time. The main customer complaint was the price, which, starting at 3,500 FCFA (US$6.50) is beyond the financial capacity of much of the rural population, especially the women. Here, there is also the challenge of fully understanding the benefits of the product, which the shopkeepers said they were working hard to explain to clients from rural villages. They noted the benefits of EdM’s promotional events in educating and spreading this awareness, marked by accompanying higher sales.
Some quotes from the shopkeepers:
“I wish to continue the partnership with EdM even if my revenues are small. I appreciate the fact that these stoves are now close to my community, so that they no longer need to travel kilometers to procure them.”
“I appreciate how EdM accompanied me in my activities, allowing me to do what I couldn’t do before. And with gas stoves, it’s a plus for the community. It’s an innovation.”
“ I wish to continue the partnership (with EdM) to help my country to economize on wood.”
For each shopkeeper, EdM also found and conducted interviews with two of their cookstove customers. Here, topics covered included how they learned about the product, what brought them to buy it, and general product satisfaction. One customer was so pleased he was currently saving up for a second stove that would allow his wife to cook both the rice and the sauce together, further freeing up her time for other tasks like farming.
Of the six customers interviewed — even though some still considered the price to be high — they unanimously felt the benefits outweighed the costs. In terms of the advantages, customers cited the economy of fuel and the practicality and convenience of the stoves.
The visit was extremely eye-opening and it was fantastic to get out of the office and see the work in action. The days were long, with numerous bumps along the way — delays in protective grill production, waiting a day or two to find a shopkeeper who’d been called away or busy, and having to interrupt an interview half-way through because a cow needed to be urgently transported to another village.
These incidents only further confirmed to me the patience and dedication of EdM’s staff, who dug holes and poured concrete for grills in the 30+ degree heat (Celsius, my friends), or spent entire days without a meal or a single complaint, but rather with continued laughter and perseverance. It was truly a pleasure and an honor to be part of their team in the field.
Being from Kiva, the question of stove affordability was one that stuck in my mind. In a future blog post, I’ll cover more on my observations from that perspective.
To end on one last and very exciting note: three of the four shopkeepers we interviewed renewed their contracts with EdM for the sale of cookstoves, thus becoming Kiva borrowers for their increased stock of cookstoves! They and two other shopkeepers became our first five Kiva borrowers – and I can proudly say they were all fully funded within a day of going live! We would love for this trend to continue, so watch for future cookstove loans on Kiva!