When your mission gets in the way

By Ray DePaul

There's a remarkable project underway as part of Enactus Mount Royal. Stoke's mission is to reduce the 4 million deaths each year attributable to the air pollution of cooking indoors with solid fuels (e.g., over a wood fire). They have identified a cook stove that can dramatically reduce the smoke produced and are working with partners on the ground in Africa. As these passionate students get closer and closer to the problem and the people in the developing world that they are aiming to help, they continue to learn the important value of understanding your "customer".

While it seems obvious that anyone cooking in a smoky environment would immediately understand the health implications of this practice, that is not the experience on the ground. Although 4 million people might die annually, over 3 billion people cook or heat their home over an open fire. That puts the odds of dying each year at about 0.13%. In a small village, it is quite possible that this global health crisis hasn't even entered their collective consciousness. Therefore, it shouldn't be a surprise that a health-oriented "marketing message" will struggle to get customers to buy a new and healthier cook stove.

But the Stoke team has one key asset in their health-related mission - customer access. They have learned that while customers are not moved by a "save your life" message, they are interested in a "save money" message. It turns out that the cook stoves they are selling also have the benefit of using less organic fuel. In other words, with an upfront capital expenditure (buying a stove), you can reduce your operational costs (buying wood or other fuel).

Digging a little deeper, one of the byproducts of the stove is biochar which can lower CO2 emissions by capturing the carbon produced by the burning of plant-based fuel. While some customers might value this environmental benefit, the Stoke team has learned of a segment that would value it for perhaps more immediate benefits. Farmers in the developing world are very sensitive to costs and by spreading biochar on their crops, can reduce the amount of fertilizer required. Therefore, for customers with farms, the message of "save money" is even stronger.

After several iterations on the ground, the Stoke team is now going to test the new hypothesis that rural farmers in Kenya will invest in a new stove that promises to save them money. If these tests are successful, they will roll out a new marketing campaign with that message and hopefully sell a lot of stoves across Africa.

One lesson that I have taken from the Stoke experience is that a mission-based/for purpose/social enterprise can't assume that their mission statement necessary directly translates into a value proposition for their target segment. If you can find a value proposition for your customers that has the side benefit of achieving your mission, your adoption might be greater. Instead of Stoke trying to get rural farmers to understand the health implications and the benefits of CO2 sequestration, they deliver the compelling value proposition of cost reduction. In the end, more stoves might get sold and therefore more lives saved and less carbon emitted. When you can align your mission with the mission of your target customer, everyone gets stoked.