Nearly 30,000 Ugandans die every year from illnesses caused by household air pollution, according to the World Health Organization. But Emmy Wasirwa doesn’t need the official figures; he can see the damage with his own eyes. “Look at the kitchens of people using traditional fuels [charcoal and wood],” says Wasirwa, who holds a PhD public health and whose own mother suffered from chronic bronchitis. “These women spend between nine and 11 hours a day in the kitchen. You see that black soot on the walls, and you can imagine what their lungs look like.”
There are cleaner fuel options, of course, like the gas that fuels kitchen stoves throughout the developed world. But with no infrastructure to deliver gas to homes—not to mention struggles to pay for it—few Ugandans have any options. So in 2008, Wasirwa founded Wana Energy Solutions to help address the problem. Wana distributes liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) to urban and rural households and businesses through a network of retail and refilling stations. It is now serving about 14,000 recurring customers.
You see that black soot on the walls, and you can imagine what their lungs look like. Tweet This Quote
In addition to the health risks, traditional fuels are a massive time burden for the 90 percent of Ugandans that rely on them. Gathering firewood, for example, generally falls to children. “If the children are to have breakfast before they go to school,” Wasirwa explains, “they have to get up at 4:30 a.m., because it takes half an hour or more to light up a charcoal stove after finding wood. So that child is not picking up a book, but spending 90 minutes making breakfast.”
Wasirwa attended medical school at Uganda’s Makerere University then went to Amsterdam and London, respectively, for his master’s and doctorate. While in school, he sent his mother an LPG cook stove to help with her bronchitis and decided that he would rather focus on preventative measures like this than go into medicine to treat people’s symptoms. By the time he received his PhD in 2009, he was already underway with Wana.
While LPG offers huge health benefits and is even cheaper for the typical family (by about $5 per month), Wana has to overcome both simple tradition—people have always cooked with wood and charcoal—and upfront costs, since switching to gas requires an entirely new stove. The former is a matter of persistence and education; to address the latter, Wana lets families finance new stoves (generally $15 to $30) over the course of a year, which they can easily do with the cost savings they enjoy by switching to gas.
Wana imports gas from throughout Africa and the Middle East and packages it in tanks of various sizes at a central hub, for distribution to its 50 outlets across Uganda. Forty-seven of these are company owned, while the remaining three are franchises. The franchise effort is a new undertaking, in partnership with Kiva, that directly supports women. Instead of paying the $4,000 franchise cost up front, women can pay that cost back over two to four years. These initial franchisees have average annual incomes of about $1,500—three times the national average in Uganda.
Since its founding in 2008, Wana has grossed $1.65 million on sales of 12,000 stoves and an average of about 20 metric tons of gas every month. That’s thousands of homes with cleaner air and where there’s no longer a need to tend fires or gather wood.