Sustainable development and addressing climate change both require gender equality. Across Africa, about 50% of the population does not have access to sustainable, clean energy sources (UN Women). Energy combustion is mostly inefficient and toxic. About 600,000 people in Africa die each year because of household air pollution (Africa Progress Panel, 2015), and approximately 60% of these victims are women (ESMAP, 2011; IRENA 2013).
Christine Atego founded Sunken Limited, a Kenyan social enterprise to address these challenges. What started with only nine employees in 2019, has benefited over 10,000 households with energy-for-productive use solutions like solar home systems, mini solar grids, solar pumps and cookstoves as well as drip irrigation and tissue culture to smallholder farmers across the country. Today, the company has a total workforce of 25 employees.
Perks of local production and reducing carbon emissions
A core product in Sunken’s portfolio is the energy-saving cookstove which addresses the main challenges like jobs, financial and natural resources as well as healthcare in Turkana County in the northwest of Kenya. The region has seen an influx of refugees fleeing conflict and political instability in neighboring South Sudan and Ethiopia since the beginning of the 1990s.
“Drawing inspiration from my mother’s spirit of helping people around her, I was determined to provide reliable and affordable cooking means and additionally create jobs for women and youth in the region,” explains Christine Atego.
Inhabitants of the camps and the host community often practice open-fire cooking. The downside of this traditional cooking is manifold: The exposure to the so-called ‘black carbon’ (also called soot) has proven to have significant hazardous effects on the respiratory system and heart, among others. Due to their traditional roles, women often spend hours cooking on an open fire with their kids close by. The energy-saving cookstoves from Sunken crucially reduce the smoke emanating from such open ovens and notably reduce the number of resources needed to cook a meal since the heat of the fire is enclosed and concentrated to point directly towards the pot on the stove. In the long run, this cooking system effectively cuts down energy consumption and proves to be cost-efficient. Sunken regularly organizes cooking demos to promote the benefits of their stoves which come in different sizes and colors.
The energy-saving cookstoves not only reduce health risks and save resources, but also provide the opportunity to create jobs and income for the local community. In the last four years, 60 artisans have received training in cookstoves production, resulting in jobs for the most skilled trainees. Before Sunken there was no commercially run cookstove production plant in the entire county. The social enterprise demonstrates that the supply of basic needs can work independently from donations that are predominant in the region, due to the refugee camps.
Apart from boosting the economic prospects of the refugees and the host community, the locally produced affordable cookstoves have reduced resource consumption and carbon emissions during production and delivery. Most of the materials needed to manufacture the stoves are locally sourced, making them largely independent from regional or international supply chains. The cookstoves are produced close to their customers, resulting in shorter delivery routes.
Women in the Green Economy
Christine started Sunken with her savings and gradually raised capital through a loan from an incubation program under the Kenya Climate Innovation Center.
In 2022, Sunken applied for the ‘epScale funding call: Women in the Green Economy’ by Siemens Stiftung (an internationally operative non-profit foundation) and was selected as one of 4 finalists. The call supports social enterprises in Kenya with a positive impact on the environment and gender while creating more jobs and economic opportunities for underserved communities. Sunken is using the grant money to develop a new cookstove manufacturing plant to scale production, create more jobs and further expand the outreach of their energy-saving cookstoves.
Supporting gender equality and social inclusion is at the heart of the enterprise. “The gender equation in the Turkana community is skewed, as men are typically in charge. However, as more women began to earn at Sunken Ltd., others also followed and joined the enterprise. Empowering women has a ripple effect on the entire community, and when you empower women, you also empower the community as a whole”, Christine explains.
Sunken showed great potential as an enterprise and met the gender criteria of the call with Christine as its female shareholder and CEO, another woman in senior management, and a diverse team of employees and women as one of their key customer target segments.
Dr. Nina Smidt, Managing Director and Spokesperson of the Board at Siemens Stiftung explains: “Women entrepreneurs and locally-led organizations in remote areas often face hurdles in securing funding, technical assistance and training required to support their growth. We seek to support such ventures through frequent calls and social entrepreneurship projects across Africa. The importance of women-led social entrepreneurial solutions cannot be overstated when it comes to tackling social and environmental issues, especially in marginalized areas. Their participation in the workforce and entrepreneurial initiatives with a focus on clean energy not only enhances household incomes, productivity, and economic variety but also facilitates Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality and climate action.”
As an epScale call finalist, Sunken became a member of Siemens Stiftung’s empowering people. Network, an ecosystem for social entrepreneurs offering financial and non-financial support to its members. “Through the network, we got introduced to new networks, met further investees, and received technical assistance. It has opened our avenues to new ideas and approaches and helped us connect with social enterprises like us, learning and exchanging best practices with them”, Christine adds.
Currently, Sunken Limited produces an average of 1,200 cookstove units a month. They’ve come a long / months way, starting from 300 units four years ago. “Do not be afraid to venture into unknown territories”, Christine shares her words of wisdom for fellow entrepreneurs who are ready to take the plunge into the world of entrepreneurship.