The Trailblazers in Impact Interview Series celebrates some of the partners we’ve worked with over the years in creating positive social and environmental impact.
In this edition, we speak with Founder and CEO of OTAGO, Carlo Figa Talamanca, who has been working with Impact Partners since 2018 in measuring their impact, and currently working on raising capital to expand their operations.
OTAGO manufactures high-quality char-briquettes using recycled biomass, as a sustainable alternative to traditional charcoal and wood, which account for over 90% of cooking fuel sources for Cambodian households. The use of wood and charcoal has many adverse side-effects, such as indoor pollution, and is one of the leading causes of disease and death in rural areas.
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- Tell us about yourself, how you decided to become an entrepreneur, and how you created OTAGO.What pain point are you addressing and how are you addressing it?
The pain points our work aim to address are both social and environmental. On the environmental side, a lot of traditional charcoal in Cambodia is derived from illegal logging. OTAGO provides environmentally-friendly alternatives to traditional coal, with every 1 tonne of char-briquette sold capable of saving 16.5 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions. In 2018, our products avoided over 16,000 metric tonnes of CO2 emissions.On the social side, 3 billion people are still cooking with biomass fuel globally. This causes serious health damage to women and children, and has led to over 4 million deaths a year. In 2013/14, we received a grant for our char-briquettes which are clean in combustion with less carbon monoxide. As a result of our work, we became a leading member of the “Clean Cooking Alliance” program of the UN Foundation.Overall, our products are not only a healthier alternative to charcoal, but also a more effective product as they burn longer and do not produce smoke or sparks.
Additionally, all of our production workers come from a French NGO called Pour un Sourire D’Enfant, and we try to sell our products to families whose children are schooled through the NGO. Our contracts with the parents require them to have their children complete their schooling while they are employed at OTAGO.
- How do you communicate your impact to investors and what are your main challenges in growing your company?
We are not the only companies producing char-briquettes and there are many players doing so, especially in Africa. However, we are the only successful one to date.One challenge we face is the label of “social enterprise” — the term has led to a lot of focus on the ‘social aspect’ of the business which can distract from the financial and business side. To balance this, we place a lot of importance on financial operations.
Since the social impact is clearly shown in the nature of our product, we have been focused on making OTAGO first and foremost a proper business, then communicating the social and environmental impact that we seek to achieve.
- What is your growth strategy? Our company has grown 20 times in the last six years. We are looking forward to growing another 5 times by building a new factory. Our main strategy would be to replicate and multiply our presence in Asia and East and West Africa (Kenya, Togo, Uganda). Our main advantage is the scalability of the model.
- What is it like working with IIX? IIX has also been very professional from the start and are spotless from a technical standpoint. From a human point of view, everyone from the team is accessible and willing to take the time to explain and communicate any issues there may be. The mentoring process from IIX has been great.
We are currently working on a first round of 2.5 million to help raise 20 million in 4-5 years from now, and we will definitely want to have IIX accompany us on this journey.
- What would you advise other impact enterprises when raising capital?My biggest advice for social enterprises is to get your financials right. Putting effort early on in having a sound, clear and transparent balance sheet will pay off in the long-run.
- What keeps you motivated and how do you avoid Founder burnout? As an entrepreneur, your challenges will change over time. Three or four years ago, my main challenge was to pay myself a salary. Now it is to keep things moving by being innovative and by growing. Most importantly, surrounding yourself with trustworthy and capable people will be a huge bonus.
- Tell us about yourself, how you decided to become an entrepreneur, and how you created OTAGO.My journey with OTAGO started towards the end of my sabbatical year when I was travelling in Cambodia. As I have a background in engineering, I had done some project valuation for some french NGOs, one of which was a project for SGFE (Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise). After a year, SGFE was in the process of closing down so I stepped in to take over the company. I later became CEO of SGFE from early January 2012.
SGFE was later renamed to Khmer Green Charcoal (KGC) and OTAGO is actually a holding company of KGC