There's an extraordinary environmental business experiment going on in the East African nation of Rwanda that involves cooking stoves, banana leaves, fuel pellets and a 22-year-old Connecticut man who wants to help change the world.
The project Eric Millinger is part of is nothing if not wildly ambitious. The intent is to create a self-sustaining system that might help save the rain forest, cut the pollution driving global warming, and dramatically improve the health of millions of poor people.
In a sense, the same anti-Wall Street attitudes fueling the Occupy movement in the U.S. are behind Eric Millinger's decision to spend the next few years in Africa working to change the way people cook their food.
"I feel like it would be a waste of my talents for me to go to work on Wall Street and just make a lot of money," says Millinger, who grew up in the small Connecticut town of Burlington and now lives in the Rwandan village of Gisenyi. "That's not my goal in life."
His goal at the moment is helping make "Inyenyeri — A Rwandan Social Benefit Company" a going concern within the next three years.
Inyenyeri is the brainchild of Eric Reynolds, the founder of the outdoor gear company Marmot and several other environmentally oriented businesses. Inyenyeri means "Star" in the local language. "We chose it as a symbol of what this company can be for the people of Rwanda," says Millinger.
Reynolds' idea is to distribute extremely energy-efficient, non-polluting cook stoves that will replace inefficient, highly polluting, forest-killing open-fire stoves. These new-age "gasification" stoves will burn pellets made from banana leaves, corn stalks and other "biomass" that villagers collect and bring to central pellet-processing centers.
Poor rural people won't have to pay for the stove, and get the fuel pellets in return for bringing in the biomass. The company will actually make its money by selling fuel pellets to urban folks who can afford them.
"We're not a cook-stove company," explains Millinger, Inyenyeri's new deputy director, "we're a fuel company."
Think cook stoves and fuel pellets are an odd way to reform the world? A hell of a lot of brilliant, committed people disagree.
Half the world's population cook using coal, dung, wood and such like stuff. According to the World Health Organization, 1.5 million people a year die from indoor wood smoke. A normal cooking fire puts out as much pollution as a car. Rwandan health officials estimate that more than a third of all rural clinic visits involve pulmonary problems resulting from indoor pollution.
Billions of cook fires are also a huge contributor to global warming, not to mention the deforestation that is taking place to feed those inefficient fires.
Right now, there's an intense worldwide competition going on to invent the best, cheapest, most efficient cook stove on earth. Inyenyeri, Reynolds and Millinger are on the front line of the effort to change the way 3 billion people cook their food.
If Inyenyeri's formula works, it will keep people from cutting down forest for fuel. Efficient stoves produce virtually no smoke pollution. The burned pellets can be turned into carbon for enriching the soil.
The pellet-making machines weigh about 400 pounds and do run on electricity from hydro-powered for fossil fuel plants, but Millinger says the "energy produced in this process is far greater than the energy consumed … and is actually carbon negative."
That sounds like engineer jargon, and with good reason.
Millinger graduated in May from the University of Colorado with a degree in environmental engineering. He's been part of the Engineers Without Borders program in Rwanda doing stuff like solar-energy projects and an irrigation system for an orphanage. In Colorado, he was a founder and co-owner of Colorado Chicken Coops, a business making (no surprise here) backyard chicken coops.
After college, Millinger got a three-month internship with Reynolds' new operation. It didn't take long for Reynolds to offer him a job.
"I do a bunch of different things," Millinger says, including helping out with the pellet-making process, checking on how their customers like the whole system, doing accounting and writing grant applications to garner more start-up money.
Inyenyeri is still in its infancy. There are only 16 employees. Just 20 high-efficiency stoves have been distributed so far and just one biomass-collection-pellet-processing center set up.
The plan is to have the system working in more than 300 rural locations by 2020.
Millinger says the business plan is for Inyenyeri to break even within three years, and Reynolds' target is a profit of $12 million by 2015.
At the moment, the program is actually "a test market" for checking out "all kinds of gasification stoves," he says.
The experiment hasn't been problem-free, Millinger admits, and the reaction of participating villagers has been "a bit of a mix."
"We've had customers love it, we've had customers who get frustrated," he says.
One problem turned out to be Rwanda's very rainy environment. When those compressed pellets get wet, they suck as fuel. Using plastic bags to protect the pellets isn't an option because Rwanda has banned plastic bags for environmental reasons.
So Inyenyeri is now providing buckets and giving them to customers to keep their fuel in, hopefully solving this setback with as low-tech a solution as possible.
Millinger is convinced that this kind of experience is exactly what he needs to fulfill his long-range dreams. "I feel like I'm getting more than my MBA," he says.
After Inyenyeri gets going, Millinger intends "to start a social venture of my own."
"I don't know what that would be yet," he adds. "I want to start something big on my own."
And by big, Millinger isn't talking about becoming a billionaire.
"The goal of this kind of business isn't to make money," he explains, "but to make a social impact."
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