Jonathan Cedar, founder and CEO of BioLite, and his co-founder Alec Drummond didn’t originally set out to save the lives of countless people. They just wanted to create a more environmentally friendly camp stove. Almost simultaneously, they completed their design for one, then learned that cooking fire smoke kills millions prematurely in energy-poor nations every year (over four million annually, according to the World Health Organization). From that confluence of discoveries arose another two-pronged creation: their Brooklyn-based social enterprise company that provides sustainable outdoor gear to developed-world customers, and uses the proceeds to help finance better cooking and energy solutions to off-grid emerging markets.
“It’s been an opportunity for me to leverage my skills to help people who haven’t had the same advantages as me,” said Cedar. “I have a Bachelor of Arts in Mechanical Engineering, which is a very different kind of degree. The program was 50% rote knowledge, and 50% go to the lab and build. It gave me a great generalist foundation for making things.”
Cedar and Drummond first met when both worked for Smart Design, a New York product development consultancy. Drummond, frustrated with fossil-fuel-based camp stoves, had an idea for an efficient wood-burning version, and teamed up with avid outdoorsman Cedar to help design and build a prototype. The two began that work in 2006, and by 2008 they had their design. The next year they discovered the clean cookstove movement, aimed at helping the estimated three billion people whose health is endangered by cooking over smoky fires every day. “That’s when we came up with the idea to combine the businesses,” explained Cedar. “We would focus on both camp stoves and clean cookstoves.”
After looking at more traditional paths for funding improvement projects for emerging economies, such as philanthropy and foundations, they found those methods to be too slow for their liking. “That’s when we came up with our social enterprise model,” Cedar said. “The idea was that our camping business would provide an anchor revenue stream to provide longer-term financing for the emerging market business. We knew it would be able to scale for both. We raised capital for the concept and did parallel innovation, with our investors equally on both sides from day one.”
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The Biolite CampStove launched in 2012. “Camping took off much more quickly than we could have hoped for,” said Cedar. “We were worried at first, because we had a minimum order of 10,000 units. But we sold 30,000 in the first six months without doing any marketing. REI picked them up and helped put us on the map in 2013. We quickly diversified into lighting and charging, all because the CampStoves had such huge success.” The company has built on that success by branching out into lighting, charging, and gear kits for the outdoors.
The BioLite HomeStove, meanwhile, launched via pilot programs in India and Uganda in 2013. “We had about six or seven years of that business being propped up by our outdoor business,” Cedar said. “The HomeStove started to do well in East Africa, then we also diversified into solar lighting. It really took off much more quickly then. We served the same customer for both cooking and lighting, and that helped accelerate things, and pulled the stove business right along. This year Africa will generate more revenue for us than camping for the first time, and that’s with outdoor having steady 25-30% growth for the past ten years. We’ve served right around three million customers there now. Our goal is to give 20 million people access to energy by 2025.”
BioLite’s other goal revolves around the climate benefit that ties both sides of the business together. “We’re displacing unsustainable biomass fuels or fossil fuels with something safer and more efficient, and reducing CO2 emissions in the process. We’re aiming at eliminating three million tons of CO2 by 2025. We’re at 143,000 tons to date.”
After struggling to find a good way to measure and document those reductions, in 2019 the company launched a non-profit, Climate Neutral, to help companies measure their sustainability information and communicate it to consumers. “REI signed on, and put a lot of eyeballs on us. Avocado Mattress is on board as well, and Peak Design is a co-founder.”
BioLite has grown from just the two founders fifteen years ago to over 80 employees in the U.S. and Africa today, with over 20 products on offer and total funding of over $30 million. For Cedar, the explanation of their success is simple. “There’s a whole world of users, consumers, and citizens with unsolved needs. How do we put attention on the hard problems in the world? Our proof point is this: we’re delivering a strong return to our investors to show that ours is a replicable model. A lot of philanthropy has economic underpinnings. We stitch those two things together to make one consistent set of actions, where we commercially benefit to help others.”