Eric Reynolds will tell you that he is on the verge of freeing much of humanity from the deadly scourge of the cooking fire. He can halt the toxic smoke wafting through African homes, protect what is left of the continent’s forest cover and help rescue the planet from the wrath of climate change.
He is happy to explain, at considerable length, how he will systematically achieve all this while constructing a business that can amass billions in profit from an unlikely group of customers: the poorest people on earth.
He will confess that some people doubt his hold on reality.
“A lot of people think it’s too good to be true,” says Mr. Reynolds, a California-born entrepreneur living in Rwanda. “Most people think I am pretty out there.”
The company he is building across Rwanda, Inyenyeri, aims to replace Africa’s overwhelming dependence on charcoal and firewood with clean-burning stoves powered by wood pellets. The business has just a tad more than 5,000 customers and needs perhaps 100,000 to break even. Even its chief operating officer, Claude Mansell, a veteran of the global consulting company Capgemini, wonders how the story will end.
“Do we know that it’s going to work?” he asks. “I don’t know. It’s never been done before.”
Inyenyeri presents a real-world test of an idea gaining traction among those focused on economic development — that profit-making businesses may be