Moving from a Corporate Engineering career to a Social engineering one has been a big shift for Mouhsine Serrar, Founder, Prakti design. But, experience, knowledge and sheer love for engineering, is what made him an entrepreneur. With a team of 18 people, the company manufactures fuel efficient cooking stoves for poor communities in 3 countries. In this interview, Mouhsine tells us his story.
Q What is your business all about? Tell us about your product.
We Design, Manufacture, and Distribute fuel efficient cooking stoves for poor communities. This is a Cookstove with high performance and low cost. It is created for users with strict usability requirements in villages. And creating this was a big challenge. We had to use the best design knowledge to make the stove usable – to maximize performance and durability, while minimizing cost.
During the design phase we wanted to make a stove that will consume less fuel (wood), and thus save the environment. We also needed to reduce the burden of buying or collecting fuel for its user. Another important aspect was elimination or reduction of smoke and indoor air pollution, therefore protecting the health of women and children in the kitchen.
Q How did you get an idea for making stoves and how did it all begin?
My last corporate job was with Dassault. I have a Ph.D. in design and mechanical engineering and extensive experience in the development of consumer products and structural simulation. I worked for 6 years at Motorola and consulted for various companies in the areas of aerospace, automotive, and the electronics industry. I loved engineering, but somehow it was not enough! I felt the need to make a positive contribution to society and at the same time I could not give up engineering as that’s what makes me happy!
I stumbled into the issue of household/ cooking energy while I was looking for a career change, from corporate engineering, to engineering products with a social angle. The decision to ‘jump’ fully into ‘social’ engineering was tough. But I had to make a choice: either be part of the problem by doing nothing, or be part of the solution, by making clean and efficient cooking stoves! I chose the latter.
I started doing stove design and engineering full time in 2004. In my search for a ‘social engineering’ task, I first thought about solar cooking. But I soon realized the need and practicality to develop improved biomass stoves. I knew nothing practical about burning wood! An NGO called Aprovecho, in Oregon, USA, generously offered me a trainee position in their lab. This was an amazing opportunity to learn about stoves, what was done in the past, and plans for the future.
After my ‘trainee’ period, I started as an independent consultant and had several contracts in Africa and India. After two years of full time consulting I had enough savings to fund Prakti startup myself.
Q How does your business function?
We are as organized as any consumer products enterprise – investing in design and engineering, mass production, and distribution. We have a team of 18 people.
We have a joint venture with a factory that makes our stoves. In the past, we have worked mostly with independent distributors, But now we are building up our own distribution network.
We have 7 products from household (up to 10 people) to institutional (up to 500 meals). Their retail prices vary from $40 to $1100. Today, our stoves prepare 2, 59,000 meals per day in India, Haiti and Nepal.
Q Revenue: How do you make your profits?
We make profits through sales margin. We achieve this relatively easily with sales of large institutional stoves. For household stoves, cost is a challenge. It is easy to make a cheap stove with low quality/value. But we realize that poor people don’t need a cheap solution, they need compelling value. Our household stove prices appear too expensive for the poor. So we require a significant investment in marketing to prove the value of the stove.
Q What difficulties did you face while starting up?
Unlike many social businesses which can adapt products made for the rich to poor communities, dissemination of stoves require investment in all elements of the enterprises: product r&d, mass production tooling, and distribution. It is expensive, risky and a long process. It has been a big challenge to get funding to support any of these elements. We already completed the first two phases: product r&d and mass production. Now, we are seeking funding to implement an ‘original’ stove distribution strategy.
The biggest challenge for social enterprises is funding and partnerships. There are almost no or very few social investors willing to invest in early stage social enterprises. In our case, early stage investment (r&d, production, distribution) is essential. Fund providers are often unable to see the varied funding needs of different types of social enterprises. They sometimes treat them similarly.
We also found developing partnerships with potential partners very difficult. As there are possibilities of getting grants in early stages, potential partners usually compete for grants. So there is a need to learn/practice how different partners can collaborate when looking for funding.
Q How has the experience of entrepreneurship added to your experience?
I was trained and worked for many years as a design engineer. Starting and running a social enterprise forced me to learn and practice marketing, business strategy, communication, and dealing with people. Unfortunately, I still have a lot to learn.
Q What support do you need to take your initiative to the next level?
Investors to support setup of distribution
Watch video of Prakti Design Lab, here.
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Kavita Krishnamurthy has over 15 years’ experience in Writing/ Editing Content. She has been a Correspondent/ Editor with leading newspapers and publication houses in India, and her subjects include Education, Business and Entrepreneurship. Presently, she lives in Switzerland, and is a freelance writer for two organisations apart from Ennovent.