Wild Geese: Conor Fox, director and co-founder of Hestian, Malawi
Cooking up projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Conor Fox: “We can calculate the level of greenhouse gas emissions saved from entering the atmosphere each year when one of their new fuel-efficient stoves is used”
Repeated encounters with the aftermath of extreme natural disasters in South America set Conor Fox on the road to acquiring the skills he needed to establish himself in the environmental economics sector.
Today, the Wexford native from Rosslare Strand is based in Malawi, where he is a director and co-founder of Hestian, an innovative carbon finance company that runs fuel-efficient projects across southern and eastern Africa that benefit local people as well as the environment.
The experiences he garnered while working in the NGO sector – when Hurricane Mitch hit Honduras in 1998, an earthquake devastated El Salvador in 2000, and massive flooding submerged much of Guyana in 2005 – laid the groundwork for his current venture.
“Much of the work I did in these three countries related to how to mitigate the risks of extreme weather events, and what I found in all three places was that much of the devastation that was caused was down to people’s effect on their environment.
“Whether it was the deforestation that heightened the effect of the hurricane in Honduras, housing built in vulnerable areas in El Salvador, or the lack of maintenance of the canal system in Guyana, a lot of the devastation could have been avoided through better environmental management,” he explains.
Fox and his partner, Estela Vidal, went to Brazil in 2005 where he worked as a consultant with Trócaire, focusing on how smallholder farmers can access carbon finance and get more involved in the decision-making process around the then embryonic sector.
“Estela worked in the NGO sector as well, so we decided to take the experience we had gained and move to an African country that is highly vulnerable to climate change, relatively stable, and has an Irish embassy, for an extended period.
“We picked out the climate hotspots and Malawi fitted the bill. So in 2008 we moved there. I set up Hestian with a lawyer from Kerry, John O’Connor, who had experience in carbon finance on the commercial side of things, and began looking for projects we could set up.
“Our goal is to achieve greenhouse gas emission reductions and strengthen sustainable development through carbon finance projects – effectively we get paid via the carbon credit system to provide a reduction in greenhouse gases,” he says.
To date, Hestian has become involved in two major projects that achieve their main goals in addition to slowing down the environmental damage done by Malawians to their habitat in the form of deforestation.
The most successful of these projects revolves around promoting the use of locally developed cooking stoves to replace the traditional three-stone stoves used widely across Africa, which are fuel-inefficient and a serious respiratory health hazard.
Hestian’s projects are verified by the Gold Standard, a non-profit foundation based in Switzerland that has developed a system to monitor carbon-reduction projects, and it issues credits that can be sold to those who want to offset their own emissions or just support an environmentally friendly initiative.
“We can calculate the level of greenhouse gas emissions saved from entering the atmosphere each year when one of their new fuel-efficient stoves is used. And we acquire around three credits per household per year.
“So far, we have 175,000 credits issued and we are about to be issued 80,000 more, which we hope to sell primarily online. Our plans are, over the next 20 to 30 years, to set up in 12 countries in southern and eastern Africa. As we expand, we should be able to increase the number of credits we have on offer.
“At this point, we have reached 60,000 households in Malawi with improved cooking stoves and a further 10,000 in Rwanda. And, for every 1,000 households we reach, we create 25 jobs,” Fox says.
In terms of the business culture he has encountered in Africa, Fox says being an entrepreneur here is a lot riskier than it is in Ireland, but the rewards may be great if you can get things right.
“Africa is high-risk for high gain. So if you are risk-averse, then Africa is not the place for you. But if you are up for a challenge of doing something that has not been done before in a particular country then this is a good place to be. The opportunities are endless,” he says.
One area where he sees a lot of untapped opportunity for Irish entrepreneurs in Africa is the energy sector, but not necessarily the traditional, established forms. Africa will be the continent with the highest population growth rate over the next 50 years. The needs and demands are massive.
“I’d advise the next generation of Irish entrepreneurs looking for opportunities in emerging economies to look for the gaps in specific markets, bring some new ideas to the table and patiently build trust and credibility locally.
“More specifically, I’d advise young people to learn about smart energy systems that are renewable and probably decentralised. This is going to be huge in Africa,” he adds.