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Silicon Savannah: Expanding Access to Clean Cooking Fuel

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A significant amount of the world’s population — over 2 billion households — cooks with dirty fuels. For most, there simply isn’t access to clean cooking fuel. 

In Kenya, Nick Quintong (CEO and Co-Founder) and his team at PayGo Energy have designed an IoT solution that expands access to clean cooking. In today’s episode of the Over the Air podcast, he discusses how they did it.

Topics we covered: 

  • Why startups are abundant in Nairobi
  • How a piece of smart hardware brings clean cooking fuel to Kenya
  • The journey of developing new IoT technology 
  • Advice for negotiating the right metrics for success


This post is based on a podcast episode with Ryan Prosser and Nick Quintong. To hear more interviews like this one, subscribe to Over the Air wherever you listen to podcasts.

The Silicon Savannah

PayGo Energy is located in Nairobi, Kenya — a region known as the Silicon Savannah.

Why? Because It’s a fertile area for startups.

10 years ago, the first startups started popping up and many of them experienced early success. Since then, there’s been a lot of investment in accelerators from venture capital firms.

Additionally, the Kenyan people are an asset. They tend to be open to new technology and quick to adopt innovative solutions. Case in point: 90% of the population uses mobile money.

Unlocking Access to Clean Cooking Fuel

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In places like Nairobi, you can’t install piped gas infrastructure. The settlements are informal, there are no tarmac roads, and the houses are not built to the same code as more developed countries.

The average person living here makes less than $8 a day and their income streams are unpredictable. Consequently, they buy dirty cooking fuel — wood, charcoal, and kerosene-based on what they can afford at that moment.

In researching the issue, Nick realized, “they’re actually spending a lot more money to cook with charcoal than I spend cooking with gas every month.”

So why can’t they just buy a cylinder of gas? Mainly because gas is only sold and refilled in large amounts at a cost too high for most living here.

In this challenging environment, how do you provide consistent and affordable access to clean cooking fuel?

Designing an IoT Solution

Nick and his team discovered an opportunity here. 

They could design an IoT device that would do two things:

  1. Change the way gas is sold — “on a fractional basis that matches up with the day-to-day of the customers we’re targeting” 
  2. Make the supply chain more efficient

Challenges of Building a Hardware Device

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For Nick’s team, it felt like they had a very clear idea and a really elegant solution. 

Now they just needed to figure out how to turn it into a tangible product. And they had to solve for certain challenges:

  • It needed to be tamper-proof
  • It needed to accurately measure micro amounts
  • It needed to have limited components so it would be safe and out of the way in a household
  • They needed to be able to control as much of the safety of the device as they could from the office

What began was an iterative process that involved tradeoffs. Key to it: understanding the needs of the customer and of the gas companies.

Advice for Others Developing an IoT Solution

“There’s a lot that I would do differently,” Nick says, “a couple areas where we might have been able to potentially speed things up.”

Find Clever Ways to Test Early

The first area: understanding the experience you’re trying to provide your customers and dispelling the risky assumptions you may have about what the product should be.

To do that, test often and early. And that might require some clever solutions.

For Nick’s team, they didn’t really have the funding to create a high-fidelity prototype. Instead, they combined off-the-shelf components with cardboard. But they got a low-fidelity device out there and in the hands of the customer so they could start testing as soon as possible.

You’ll learn a lot in the process. When the funding finally comes through, you’ll be better prepared to develop a device that’s closer to what the customer actually needs.

Be Wary of Skewed Data

Beta customers often end up rooting for the product’s company. In doing so, they can skew the results of testing. That ends up creating unintended downstream effects.

In Nick’s case, they worried that their invasive approach to concept testing— coming into people’s homes to physically weigh the gas cylinders — added a component of social pressure to the experiment that might have had an effect on the outcomes.

Parallel Processing

Although you may have a prototype that has some off-the-shelf components, eventually you’ll realize that to be a commercially viable product, you may need to create some custom componentry.

When you start the value engineering process, you might need to make some tradeoffs.

The earlier you start that process the better. Try conducting it while you are testing your initial prototype. Filter those findings down to v2 so that you can reach positive unit economics sooner.

Find Consensus on the Goalposts

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For the morale of the team, it’s really important to have all key stakeholders dig into the problem you’re trying to solve so that everyone shares a clear vision for what success looks like. 

It makes it much easier to get buy-in from everyone on what the metrics of success should be so that the goalposts don’t constantly shift throughout the process.

The result? A team rowing in the same direction towards company goals.

For more insights into connected devices, subscribe to Over the Air wherever you listen to podcasts.