Why customers must come first for social enterprises

A customer selects oranges at a street market in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, May 6, 2016

Image: REUTERS/Pilar Olivares

Ron Bills
Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of the Board, Envirofit
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Social enterprises understand that everyone is united by the desire to live well.

One of the amazing things that social enterprises can do is help give a voice to the voiceless by working with underserved communities to develop life-improving goods and services. The clean cookstove sector exists to address a problem that is global in scope, and to reach the people who need clean cooking technology the most, in numbers that will make a difference. One way to increase impact is to partner with national governments, but these public-private partnerships have often failed to produce lasting results. However, our work with Honduran President Juan Orlando has helped redefine the impact public-private partnerships can have by changing how they are implemented.

A member of the Honduran legislature before becoming president, Juan Orlando witnessed the negative effects of inefficient cooking on the health of Honduran people, and the role it played in accelerating national deforestation. Most Honduran families cook indoors on traditional, built-in mud plancha stoves. These traditional stoves are the primary source of household air pollution, the smoke and other toxic emissions that result from inefficient fuel combustion and that adversely affect millions of Hondurans every day. To combat this, Juan Orlando approached Envirofit with the vision of transforming hundreds of thousands of Honduran homes with modern cooking technology.

We knew that the only way to successfully convince families to change their cooking habits would be with a product that was adapted to their cultural cooking practices; we also knew it had to be something that they were proud to own. As I’ve written before on the World Economic Forum’s blog, there is a tendency for programmes to attempt to solve problems for communities rather than with them. There are many examples of interventions from social enterprises, NGOs, state actors and non-profits that failed to deliver long-term impact because they didn’t understand the people at the centre of the problem.

Our plan was to develop an entirely new product for this partnership, and Juan Orlando’s passion for delivering a cookstove that would meet the needs of the Honduran people made him the ideal partner. This commitment to working with underserved communities, and investing the resources necessary to understand the problem and design the right solution for it, is how a public-private partnership successfully developed the Ecofogon Ahorrador plancha stove.

We asked Honduran families to tell us how cooking on their traditional stoves affected their everyday lives, and how the process could be improved. My experience leading business units in the durable goods sector at Polaris Industries and Barbardier before joining Envirofit left me unsurprised by their answers. Rural Honduran families told us they wanted a cookstove that had the same traits as any other well designed product – one that was efficient, affordable and durable. People are united by the desire to live well, and the pride and appreciation they feel in having something genuinely useful in their homes that is also attractive and aspirational is something I’ve seen in every country and market I’ve worked in, from Boston to Tegucigalpa.

Our collaboration with the Honduran government allowed us to provide underserved communities with a technologically advanced product that will make their lives easier and safer, reaching more than 100,000 families. It has also given us the ability to sustainably support them for years to come with our industry-first 360 Customer Care Center, where customers are called proactively at least once per quarter to ensure stoves are functioning properly, and technicians can visit homes when needed. Creating long-term impact at scale is the goal of any public-private partnership, but taking the time to invest in developing the right technology that meets the needs and desires of the people is the difference between failure and success.

The World Economic Forum on Latin America is taking place in Medellin, Colombia from 16 to 17 June.

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