"We saw the potential, and it's very rewarding to be implementing our vision."

You could say that Lucas Belenky '08 (civil engineering)  was fortunate that the economy went bust. When job offers dried up for the civil engineer with a master's from Carnegie Mellon, he decided to regroup by volunteering in Kenya for a few months. Five years later he's still in Kenya, where he recently launched a social impact company that could change the lives of millions — while still earning a profit.

Using social media, crowd-funding and their own money to pay for start-up, Baker and his partners in Top Third Ventures recently launched larger-scale production and distribution of their first product: an efficient cook stove called simply, Baker. This attractive stove, designed by a Swedish firm, allows rural Africans to maintain their local traditions and cooking culture while cooking faster, more safely and using only one-third the fuel, thereby significantly reducing smoke production and exposure to indoor air pollution. The new cook stove also cuts down on deforestation in Kenya and reduces emissions that contribute to climate change.

"Women in rural Kenya do an amazing amount of the work, and cooking the way they do now exposes them to smoke that's the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. I'd feel really bad if I didn't do something to improve their lives," Belenky says. "While it's true that we're helping people in many ways, that's not a good sales pitch. Our primary goal is to build a profitable company that makes a high-quality product, so we can expand the business and reach more people." Within two years, Top Third Ventures wants to be active in the adjacent countries of Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia.

Others have tried to bring fuel-efficient cook stoves to Africa, but Belenky believes he has finally found a way to make it economically viable. The stove, which retails for $30, costs $50 to produce. Top Third Ventures breaks even on each stove after the first year by selling on the global market carbon credits earned under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change's Clean Development Mechanism. As carbon credits are earned annually for a 10-year period, the company will begin to see a profit through its carbon-trading scheme, which is already in the second year.

"We saw the potential, and it's very rewarding to be implementing our vision," Belenky says. Learn more about Belenky's work at TopThirdVentures.com and BakerProduct.com.

Posted November 2013

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