by Lindsay Saperstone, International Communications Coordinator
On September 17, I had the opportunity to talk with Ivan Osorto of Ecofogón. In January 2012, Ecofogón incorporated as its own for-profit enterprise dedicated to the construction, distribution and marketing of clean cookstoves. They have also started distributing and marketing household-level solar energy solutions, serving as one of Trees, Water & People’s key partners in our nascent solar energy program called Luciérnaga. As we embark on the journey to transform Luciérnaga into its own for-profit entity, we asked Ivan to share his experiences and offer advice in adopting a social enterprise approach.
Why did you decide to create Ecofogón as a separate business?
Ivan: Through La Asociación Hondureña para el Desarrollo (AHDESA), we had been building and distributing cookstoves since 1998. We found that customers who had received a stove as a donation in the past, were now looking for new stoves or replacement parts but there wasn’t anywhere they could buy them. In 2012, we decided to form as a business with all the legal and financial structures in place in order to better serve this market and fill the growing demand for our cookstoves.
Who are your customers and how do they pay for the stoves?
Ivan: We mostly sell to our partner NGOs like World Relief, an organization that then sells the stoves to its members using microcredit financing. We recently sold 250 stoves to Walmart for a special project they are doing.
What has been your biggest challenge since forming Ecofogon?
Ivan: Cash flow. Our seed capital in 2011 was small ($5,000) to start and so we started slow, selling about 20 stoves every few months. We have taken our time positioning ourselves in the market and building our brand. In 2012, we had a little more credit and therefore more sales. We also began to operate more efficiently. The other big challenge has been inventory and production. We currently cannot produce products to meet our demand.
What kind of impact have you seen from your work with Ecofogón?
Ivan: I am completely convinced that there is a market here for us to serve and to me, if we are serving this market than we are successful. Customers want the availability of our clean cookstoves and they need money to buy them. Buy producing this product and partnering with organizations that offer financing, we are able to meet this need. However, as I mentioned, our production capacity is limited and there is much of the market left to serve. My vision for the future is to go as far as we possibly can.
How did you come to get involved in this work?
Ivan: What attracted me most to this project initially was the possibility of manufacturing something useful here in Honduras. Many people think of Honduras as a place that manufactures underwear and t-shirts – quickly. And I thought, since everyone wants and uses a griddle stove, why can’t we produce that here in Honduras in the same way? I really fell in love with the idea of making something locally and providing something that people want and need.
Can you offer us some advice as we move forward with Luciérnaga?
Ivan: One of the reasons that our cookstoves have been so successful is that our customers really trust us and trust our product. Aside from doing demonstrations, we always distribute brochures and pamphlets about us as a manufacturer and all the benefits of our product. Trust is really important in Honduran culture; people are generally inherently distrustful of new products, especially imports from abroad. If you want to be successful with your lights here and throughout the region, you need to think about your customer in the same way you would if you were selling them a T.V. or cell phone – include information about the manufacturer and guarantees about the quality of the product!