My ‘aha!’ moment: It started with a stove

Cookstove in North Sumatra

Kasiaro Kalawa and Maslan Lubis use a fuel efficient cookstove in Nanggar Jati village in Tapanuli Selatan, North Sumatra. (© Conservation International/photo by Tory Read)

Editor’s note: In honor of Conservation International’s (CI) 30th anniversary, this is the latest post in an occasional series called “My ‘aha!’ moment,” in which CI staff reflect on moments of insight or discovery that paved the way for their careers in conservation. For Hank Cauley, senior vice president for CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business, the journey began with a stint in Somalia and a groundbreaking stove. Read other posts in this series.

I was a kid in the time of the oil embargo back in the ’70s; it really just struck me as a big deal. It led to a decision and interest in energy issues, but energy in the sense of the really critical engineering side. That’s why I went into chemical engineering, which is really about heat and mass transfer, and so you really become good at thinking about energy issues.

I ended up working for an engineering consulting company here in the D.C. area, and did a lot of work with alcohol fuels back then. But I was just bored out of my mind. I like living on the edge, so since I had a couple thousand dollars in the bank, I quit and went to work for a small nonprofit doing what was called “appropriate technology.” They needed someone to go to Somalia to do some building projects in the refugee camps, so I went out there and started building some health clinics and schools. Before I left, they said, “You should see if there’s an opportunity to do something with stoves.”

The camp had 20,000 refugees, on the Ethiopia-Kenya border, about eight hours’ drive from Mogadishu, Somalia, way out in the middle of nowhere. I pulled into this camp and thought to myself, “Oh my God, what have I gotten myself into?”

Hank Cauley

I was supposed to be there for three months. Three months turned into nine months, turned into a year, ultimately turned into four years. Within those first three months, we got the building stuff started, and I saw the opportunity to start working on stoves.

Working at the refugee camps between 1981 and 1985 was the ultimate crucible for learning how to work with people, learning how to work with governments. It was a tough place – I had malaria twice, I had typhoid. And my conclusion from being there for four years was that the challenge with the stoves is not the technical stuff, the challenge is the social and the marketing issues. How do you get people to make it, and buy it?

It was a denuded landscape. The women who did all the cooking would walk out to collect wood. It got to the point where they had to walk 10 to 15 km (6 to 9 miles) just to collect wood (because all the trees nearby had been cut down). And they’d be out for two days, and they’d have to do this every 10 days, and you’d see these women walking back in well over 100-degree temperatures.

woman using cookstove in Somalia

Woman using cookstove in Somalia. (Photo courtesy of Hank Cauley)

The insight was that we really have to use traditional ways of making and testing these things to get women to use it, and so that’s what we focused on: You figure out the power structure from a civil society standpoint, and you work with the women who are leaders in that group, and you get them to try things and talk about it with their peers. You work with the people who have the most influence, and you don’t force it. The product has to speak for itself; it has to be affordable, has to perform well, has to really fit in socially. The cookstove looks really simple, but there were so many iterations, so much design goes into it. Earlier versions had a hole in the bottom because that way the ash would fall out. But it turns out the women move the stoves a lot, and the kids were burning their toes on the hot ashes.

So you learn through trial and error. We ended up making the stoves out of soapstone, a material which comes from the center of the country. The stove used about half the amount of wood as the traditional stove. There’s no history of making things out of metal there, and metal is very expensive. If it’s not saving wood and meeting the social needs, people would not use it. Period. I had a super great Somali staff who knew when to bring me in and knew when to keep me out, because a foreigner always changes the dynamic.

There’s sort of a postscript on this: in 2010, I read an article in The New York Times about food distribution in Somalia, and I looked at the photo of the woman cooking, and I said, “That’s my stove!” I called a Somali associate of mine and told him, and he said “Hank, we thought you knew. It’s become the stove of choice – there are millions of them.”

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I left Somalia to get an MBA at Harvard, and got a job offer from the Boston Consulting Group spin-off called Telesis. The Telesis work had nothing at all to do with the environment and sustainability — it was all about pricing fiber-optic fiber, or should Rubbermaid get into making new types of boxes. I was on the partner track, and they were pleased with my work, I was making a decent amount of money, but it was having that 4 a.m. wakeup: “Really? When are you going to get on with your real purpose here?” After giving one successful presentation, I walked out of the meeting and instead of feeling proud of what I’d done, I thought, “If I can do so well on something I care so little about, what could I do on something I really care about?”

That led to a decision to go to WWF, where I headed up a program on business and biodiversity in the Asia-Pacific area. We had about 20 projects in seven different countries – great work. It was a good testing ground looking at issues of business and biodiversity. And in fact, it’s when I first came across Conservation International, in 1993, because CI had projects in the Philippines, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands.

After doing that about four years, I was tired of the bureaucracy of the organization, so I started a timber company in Papua New Guinea (PNG). But, I knew it had to have a purpose. So, I brought out scientists from a number of organizations to help put together a science-based harvesting plan. I knew a sustainable harvesting plan for critical timber resources was key to the long-term  health of the company and the country.

As I transitioned back to the US from PNG, I knew I had found my purpose. From the stove in Somalia to the timber company in PNG, the point of my passion was the intersection between business and the sustainable development. Anyone who knows CI knows the organization is a leader in this space.

When I was interviewing at CI, I was asked “what’s the thing you’re proudest of accomplishing from an environmental standpoint?” It’s easy: that stove.

Hank Cauley is senior vice president for CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business

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