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Discovering the value of deep listening

Social enterprise activates on customer insights to achieve success in risky market
October 18, 2021


As consumers, the products and services we see in our nearest superstores are displayed in their shiniest, most refined forms. We rarely witness the arduous process of creating a quality innovation, where a product’s success is often predicted by the answer to a single question: does my solution solve a troubling problem for my customer?

Justine Nyaruri Abuga, CEO and Founder of Ecobora, was driven to revisit this question to learn more about his customer’s pain points and push his impact further in rural Kenya. Ecobora is a social enterprise and pioneer within the clean energy space. His team has patented a solar powered cook stove that enables around the clock cooking, eliminating the use of pollutants such as firewood. Underlying Ecobora’s success is the feedback received from customers along the way. 
The idea for Ecobora dates back to Justine’s university years, where he volunteered with a charity group to provide clothes and food to marginalized children. 

We quickly discovered that the kids didn’t have a source of energy to cook the food, so kids as young as five were being forced to collect firewood in the slums.

This sparked a new question for Justine — what if he could donate energy?

He decided to purchase a small quantity of green biomass bricks from an online vendor and distribute them to local households. The next month, anxious with anticipation, he returned to the village. To his surprise, he found that the biomass sacks were nearly full. “They wouldn’t tell me what the problem was. When you’re given a gift in our culture, you don’t show displeasure, but when the family prepared the supper, I saw that the brick was difficult to light and it only simmered.” Overcome with anguish,  Justine realized he had been swindled into buying an energy source that was both faulty and inefficient.

Several months of research motivated Justine to try pelletizing technology — a process that compresses materials such as wood into biomass pellets, which are then burned to generate energy. This process produces 80% less CO2 emissions when combusted than coal. After producing pellets for two years and serving nearly 23,000 homes, the Kenyan government outlawed logging, and Justine was once again forced to pivot to keep his business open and his impact alive. 
He returned to the question that had helped steer his solution in the past: what was the problem community members were facing? 
Children in western Kenya were still traveling long distances to collect firewood for their homes and schools, faced with an impossible decision to either drop out or learn hungry. Rather than assisting individual households, Justine’s team realized that by targeting schools they could tackle both issues simultaneously. They began developing a solar boiler for school kitchens, which would allow children to focus on learning rather than firewood collection, and enable access to free school meals. Three of Ecobora’s partner schools have since been able to invest their savings into computer labs for students. 
After integrating their solar boiler technology into schools, Ecobora was motivated to join the Acumen and IKEA Social Entrepreneurship East Africa Accelerator to gain insight into how to build a sustainable business model, resilient to the shocks the enterprise had previously experienced in a high-risk market such as energy. 
With the hands-on guidance of IKEA’s professional coaches, Acumen advisors, and impact measurement company 60 Decibels, Justine and team developed a lean and rapid customer discovery experiment. The experiment would test a new pay-as-you-go method of financing, which would be mutually beneficial for schools and Ecobora, allowing the enterprise to unlock capital for new partnerships. 
The team reflected on a key customer hypothesis — schools found their hardware costly. Thus, they would expand their interviews to include students, teachers, cooks, and board members to determine the most affordable way to support schools. 

Our customer discovery experiment was an eye-opener. The feedback was overwhelming, 90% preferred the pay-as-you-go for energy approach so that they didn’t have to own the boiler hardware.

Ecobora discovered that there was greater demand for clean energy if Ecobora could retain ownership of the hardware and allow schools to purchase energy as needed. 
Justine’s biggest takeaway from the project was that his team had been designing and implementing customer experiments the wrong way. Previously, they had created lengthy, labor-intensive field studies which constrained money, resources, and time. The Accelerator experiment offered an alternative to customer validation, but still managed to involve all stakeholders. 
“My coaches have helped me become an objective business leader, without losing that personal connection to stakeholders. They have pushed us to critically question every decision and encouraged us to document our progress, because even if it's negative, it needs to be discussed,” said Justine.  
Since completing the experiment, Justine has been contacted by The World Bank, who is interested in learning more about Ecobora’s technology and impressive impact thus far. 
In the coming weeks, Justine and team will continue to problem-solve with IKEA coaches and Acumen advisors to carve a sustainable path for future impact in Kenyan communities.
Emily Close

Emily Close

Emily is a Content Creator at Acumen Academy, where she works alongside social entrepreneurs tackling the toughest issues of inequality, to bring their stories to the forefront and share their solutions with other individuals aspiring to affect social change. You can find Emily building content with her colleagues, bouldering with friends, or buried in a book in one of London’s oldest bookstores.