CEO Spotlight: Lucas Belenkly of Top Third Ventures

Cooking methods in third world countries have caused millions of deaths through passive smoking, but one company is attempting to change that. In the spotlight this week is Lucas Belenkly of Top Third Ventures, the business responsible for the world’s first energy efficient cookstove.

lucas belenkly

Millions of people across the developing world cook over an open fire, requiring them to search for firewood and inhale copious amounts of smoke on a daily basis.  Providing a practical alternative for people earning less than an average of $2.50 a day has proven difficult so far, but the team at Top Third Ventures believe they have an easy to use solution.

Through extensive consultation with local customers and smart design, the Baker Cookstove burns one third as much wood compared to an open fire while producing half as much smoke. If you are interested in learning more about the Baker cookstove and its story, you can view their website here.

Following a successful investment campaign on crowdfunding site indiegogo Top Third Venture’s CEO Lucas Belenky answered a few questions about himself, the Baker cookstove and the future of the company.

Now that you have reached your Indiegogo target, what is the next stage of the Baker Stove’s development?

Down the road we will design a product for use with charcoal, as the current model is designed for wood. But the idea is to never stop innovating [and] always make something better for our customers. We are investing in improved production methods to achieve a lower price and higher quality.

Now that you’re starting to reach a larger market, what kind of feedback are you getting from customers? Is there a need to make changes to products in the future?

We are getting mostly positive feedback, but some of our customers have complained about different things. We sat down with each one and talked about what they didn’t like, which led to two minor changes that improved the product. We then conducted a full scale recall so everyone could have the modified product.

The response from our customers was great.  They loved that we listened and that we acted. This kind of responsiveness is normal for most consumer product companies but it is rare here in Kenya.

bakerstove cook stove nairobi

Why do you think this problem hasn’t been solved before? Have similar companies not been as responsive to local needs?

That’s a really good question. The idea of providing customers in developing countries with efficient cookstoves has been around since the 1970s. Until around 2005 it remained the space of NGOs and charities. The emergence of the carbon credit market in Europe in 2005 changed a lot. Most cookstove companies, including mine, earn carbon credits from the customers’ use of the stove. These can be sold to companies or governments with the EU providing the largest demand. But recently it’s been the case of what you hinted at. A lot of stoves out there do not properly address the culture and local traditions of their customers. Sort of like telling everyone in the US to drive a smart car, the products are efficient and good for the environment on paper but often impractical to use.

It appears from your online biographies that you have quite a bit of experience working with carbon credit markets. Do you see carbon markets playing a large role in sustainable development projects in Africa?

I do. So far its mostly China, India, and other emerging countries that benefited from the carbon market mechanisms. But more and more the focus is shifting to Africa. What’s good about carbon credits is that you earn them depending on how successful the project is. You need to track your impact and report it to the certifying body. So poor projects won’t survive, which is a good environment for effective projects to flourish.

It looks like you began working as a consultant on some of these sustainable projects in Africa almost immediately after graduation.

That’s correct. I went to Ghana when I was 16 and something about the experience never left me. When I finished my master’s degree in 2009 the financial crisis was in full swing so I decided to volunteer in Africa for a couple months. During those months I was introduced to the concept of carbon credits and the idea of putting a price on pollution really interested me. It’s very rewarding work because you are making a difference at the global level and locally in the communities.

bakercookstoveceo

What motivates you and how did you get started? Might you have any advice for someone in a similar position who wants to make a difference?

My advice for someone else would be if you want to work in this part of the world it really helps to be here. About starting a company and implementing a vision, I would say you need to throw everything behind it and have blind faith.

Do you think that is something anyone could do? Were there important connections or opportunities that came your way?

I like to think anyone can do it but I was very fortunate to have the right business partner when I started. He has extensive experience setting up companies and building brands, something I knew very little about when we started. His network was also very valuable. He brought in the design team that gave the Baker its unique look.

What are your plans for the future of the Baker cookstove and what are the biggest challenges that will have to be overcome?

We are focusing our sales initially in Laikipia county in Kenya. Next we need to ramp up sales, expand throughout Laikipia county, then Kenya, while also developing our charcoal stove. The biggest challenge will be first setting up high quality, large scale production, then effectively distributing and marketing the products. Distribution in rural developing countries is very difficult but as a company we take an evolutionary approach to our challenges. We are quick to modify or even discard a strategy if it isnt working, so I’m confident we will overcome these challenges.

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