By Sarah Butler-Sloss, Ashden Founder-Director

This week, politicians and officials from around the world are meeting in Nairobi for the fourth session of the UN Environment Assembly. The theme of the event is ‘innovative solutions’ – a fitting subject given the urgent need for action to protect our planet. Leaders will wrestle with a vital question: how to unlock and speed up the innovation that will fight climate change and safeguard our futures. Clean energy for all is at the heart of this challenge.

The conference delegates will not have to look far to see how much bold, brave and dynamic organisations can achieve. Cookstove maker BURN Manufacturing is based just a few miles from the site of the UN summit. Millions of people die prematurely every year because of indoor air pollution caused by smoky cookstoves and open cooking fires. But BURN’s unique Jikokoa cookstoves protect the health of users and reduce deforestation – good for our earth and its people, particularly the poorest and most marginalised.

The first Jikokoa stove was launched in 2013. It represented a step-change in the design and efficiency of charcoal-burning cookstoves, dramatically improving the health and wellbeing of its users as well as saving them money. The Jikokoa cuts down smoke and soot by more than 60% compared to traditional ceramic cookstoves, and significantly reduces time spent cooking and collecting wood.

Since then Jikokoa stoves – built at a state-of-the-art-factory – have changed three million lives, with more sales every day. This is a great success story of Kenyan manufacturing, and an example to the rest of the world. But with our planet facing a climate crisis, we must do more to help innovators thrive.

Sustainable energy: the recipe for success

It is not enough to only find 'the next BURN Manufacturing' – we need thousands more ground-breaking organisations to deliver cleaner energy, jobs, homes and transport. So what helps these organisations blossom? Smarter funding, better policies and support for women are three key ingredients.

We urgently need more catalytic finance - grants, concessional finance, government and private investment that unlocks money from large commercial investors. Even the most promising businesses and projects can be seen high-risk and struggle to attract enough investment from traditional sources in their early stages. Catalytic finance helps organisations grow, and so attract much larger investment from traditional banks and funders. The impact can be huge – $1 billion of catalytic finance would unlock the $50 billion needed to make clean cooking and electricity available to everyone.

More broadly, we want investors from the business and philanthropic worlds, the NGO sector and global governments to work closely together to support innovation. BURN has grown by attracting funding from backers including General Electric, the not-for-profit Acumen and the US Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC). A mix of funding streams gives enterprises flexibility and security. 

The UN has made clear that we can only grow a culture of innovation by unleashing the creativity and entrepreneurship of women. Here, again, BURN is setting an example. Offering staff benefits such as sick leave and maternity pay helps them attract a high number of women to their workforce, something rare in the manufacturing sector. Innovation cannot happen without ingenuity, talent and dedication from across society – we will not succeed if we exclude half the planet. And with women most at risk from dangerous cooking, steps to protect their health give them a better chance of earning money and improving their power and position in society.

Politicians can do their bit by introducing policies that support clean energy innovation. These could include changes to tax systems and regulations, and the end of subsidies for polluting fuels. Politicians should also recognise the wider benefits of sustainable energy, which creates earning opportunities, tackles inequality and boosts health and education. If our leaders are brave enough to take strong and decisive action, the prize on offer is huge.

Of course, no individual can spark this transformation on their own. Meeting a challenge as huge as climate change demands teamwork and co-operation - across sectors, across borders and across political divides. In the years ahead, we must come together to share our solutions and learn from our failures.

Sunfunder and Angaza - two more outstanding examples

In Kenya, there's sustainable energy innovation everywhere you turn. Success stories include Angaza, who integrate embedded Pay-As-You-Go technology into clean energy products - so people can use them without a big up-front cost. This technology works with Angaza's cloud-based software to make sure things like solar water pumps and household appliances are available to even the poorest families.

Sunfunder offers solar businesses in Kenya loans that make their day-to-day operations possible. Without detailed knowledge of the sector, many banks are reluctant to lend to the sector's innovators. But Sunfunder works with committed investors to supply tailored debt financing to solar businesses. Sunfunder's loans have helped companies of all sizes bring electricity to hundreds of thousands of households.

Enterprise hubs will boost innovation

The need to build stronger networks is why Ashden is setting up new enterprise hubs in Nairobi and Mumbai. Here sustainable energy outfits such as BURN, Sunfunder and Angaza can receive business support and technical assistance, network, attract funding and share what they have learned. These centres will showcase the incredible power and potential of sustainable energy – growing the sector and supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs.

Working together, we can create a more sustainable world with clean energy for all. If the leaders at this week's summit still need convincing, I encourage them to leave their meeting rooms and head down the road to BURN Manufacturing, where they will see a powerful example of the innovation they are so keen to promote.

This article first appeared in The Sunday Standard