We interviewed Timothy Lipp to see what drives him to pursue his venture, Stoke:
What’s your why?
Social entrepreneurs often get excited about a problem, but for me it was the solution that caught my attention. About seven years ago, when I was studying language survey work, I heard about a design for cookstoves that could be built locally and that actually turn the wood burned into a by-product that can be useful. The design was an open-source one developed by Ohio professor Paul Anderson.
I’m a bit of an idealist and the idea didn’t leave my imagination. Some of that is because of the need. Around the world, 2.7 billion people cook their meals over an open fire, resulting in 4.3 million premature deaths annually that can be directly connected to air pollution caused by open-fire cooking.
I had been planning on a career in diplomacy but after attending an entrepreneurship competition where I brought this idea to the table, I began seeing that involvement with getting these cookstoves to people would be a different pathway to pursuing my passions. Both diplomacy and this type of entrepreneurship depend on developing solid local relationships.
The other factor that draws my heart to both is the potential to enable and benefit communities that are marginalized and disadvantaged. There can be a lot of stigma attached to having a faith-based motivation because people might believe I have a religious agenda — and I do have such an agenda, only it is not what people would expect. My work in Nepal gave me an appreciation of the strong theological basis for ethnic and linguistic diversity in the world and the need to apply that solution to development challenges. I want to see the opposite of what happened in Canada with the residential schools — to value the diversity of different people and to bring reconciliation through true economic security and self-sufficiency.
What’s the problem you are solving?
How we describe the problem depends a lot on context. In Canada, we describe the health benefits of the cookstove, while in Kenya, we look at the economic benefits of providing greater economic security through microenterprise, because these cookstoves can be built and repaired locally, and are extremely cost-effective for users at $12 per stove.
What keeps you up at night?
It’s easy to get involved in an intervention model with a product that drags developing communities through a kind of neocolonialism, where we come in and provide a solution for them. Our biggest challenge is to figure out how not to do that — to provide value to these communities in a sustainable and scaleable kind of way.
This means we are really thinking a lot about our business model and discussing potential models with experts. Our original plan was to enable businesses in Kenya to build these cookstoves so that they would benefit economically — and we have sold 123 such cookstoves to date — but we are realizing that setting up these businesses ourselves doesn’t add the most value.
We are shifting our thinking to consider what might be the best role we can play as white expat students. We’re still working this out. It’s been really helpful for me to be at St. Paul's GreenHouse this summer, to have space to think about this and to have good advice and teaching that informs our thinking.
I think it will be valuable for us to do some on-the-ground research, likely in Kenya, so we are looking for funding to allow us to do that.
- by Susan Fish