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Following a recent visit to the Uganda Improved Cookstoves project, Melissa Corser from Willmott Dixon and Carl Assmundson from Natural Capital Partners talk about what the visit meant to them.
Last year, construction and property management company, Willmott Dixon, launched its first set of staff awards for sustainability. Melissa Corser, Environmental Manager for Willmott Partnership Homes, won the ultimate accolade of Sustainability Champion for her work promoting eco-friendly practices across the company’s projects in the Midlands. Melissa’s prize was a visit to the Uganda Improved Cookstoves project - one of three carbon offset projects the company is supporting*- to experience first-hand the positive impact that is being delivered to the environment and communities. Following her visit with Carl Assmundson from Natural Capital Partners, Melissa and Carl talk about what the visit meant to them.
Melissa, tell us a bit about how you felt when you won the prize to visit the project
Gobsmacked and totally honoured! I have never won anything in my life, so to win the opportunity to visit the project was fantastic and very exciting.
Carl, in your role at Natural Capital Partners, what work do you do with the carbon offset projects supported by Willmott Dixon and other clients?
I’m a Sourcing Associate at Natural Capital Partners and I liaise with our project partners on a daily basis. I talk to them to learn more about the problems they’re trying to solve, to obtain updates on progress, and to ensure they are performing as planned and meeting their goals.
Melissa, what were you most looking forward to seeing on the project visit?
I work in the construction industry so it won’t surprise you to know I was most looking forward to visiting the factories where the cookstoves are manufactured, to see first-hand how an improved cookstove is assembled from start to finish. I was particularly interested to learn, from a components perspective, how an improved cookstove is different from a traditional cookstove. I’ve never visited Africa before, so I was also looking forward to meeting the people and to experiencing the local culture.
Carl, with your expert knowledge of the project, what were you looking forward to most on the visit?
Although I know the project well from talking to them and reviewing reports, I was looking forward to developing a more personal connection with the project implementers, a deeper understanding of improved cookstove technology, and an opportunity to hear first-hand about the benefits being delivered to the local communities.
For you Melissa, what was the highlight of the trip?
The highlight for me had to be meeting the households who are benefitting from the use of an improved stove. We were welcomed into people’s homes, allowing us to get a sense of home life in Uganda and see the benefits they get. While a US $4 cookstove seems such a simple concept, the benefits it delivers are much bigger and everyone we met spoke about them with such passion. It made me realise just how important the project is for the local people.
And for you Carl, given your existing knowledge of the project, what was the most surprising thing you learned on the trip?
I think the most surprising thing was to see just how prevalent charcoal use is in urban areas. I knew the numbers – 80,000 hectares of forest lost a year – but it’s difficult to actual visualise that in terms of the quantity of charcoal consumed. Also, everyone we met – from people living close to the cookstove factories to the taxi drivers – all recognised an improved stove by its colour. Later, we were told each stove factory has its own distinct brand colour which they use to market and differentiate their product.
What were the key benefits you saw the project delivering on the ground, Melissa?
The cost savings from the reduced fuel requirement – households are using about 50% less fuel. Before visiting the project, I assumed people would talk about the reduced household smoke as the number one benefit, but one lady I spoke with said she hadn’t even noticed the black soot from her previous traditional cookstove, which coated the ceiling. It was quite humbling to learn that the relatively small financial saving often made the difference between a child being able to go to school or not.
From what you saw, Carl, what would you say the response has been from local communities to improved cookstoves?
The project supports stove manufacturers in their marketing efforts such as radio campaigns, but a lot of the awareness around improved stoves is through word of mouth and the colour of the stoves. Given the number of stoves we saw, the response seems to be very positive! It was really heartening to hear how proud the manufacturers are of the product they are producing, and gives me even greater confidence to speak about the project to clients and prospects.
Why is carbon finance (delivered through the purchase of carbon credits) so essential for this project?
It is only through the support of companies like Willmott Dixon that the project is able to operate and grow. Carbon finance is used to support the manufacturing process – so that the Ugandan partners have the capacity and facilities to produce high quality stoves – and to support marketing efforts. In the future, the project would like to use this finance to run more radio campaigns to spread the word of stove benefits, and to offer institutional stoves on loan so schools can afford them despite the relatively high upfront costs.
Has the project visit changed your perception of Willmott Dixon’s carbon neutral programme, Melissa?
Before the trip I knew Willmott Dixon was involved in carbon offsetting but I didn’t know all the details about the project and the wider benefits delivered to the environment and communities. After experiencing first-hand the value of the improved stoves, it makes me immensely proud to work for a company which is supporting sustainable development, not only in the UK (as a UK-based business), but globally, and in countries like Uganda where even the most basic services aren’t available.
How does it feel being back in your day job following the project visit?
I certainly appreciate the lifestyle we are able to lead here in the UK a lot more, and our ease of access to basic and fundamental services such as clean water, heat and cooking, and education. During the visit, I met a woman who runs a charity in Uganda which helps to protect endangered species. As part of the charity’s work, they run an educational project to raise awareness on the importance of conservation. I’d like to support the project to deliver its environmental programme, so am talking to them about how I could do that.
Will you take anything away from the visit to apply to your working role?
A key part of my role involves training Willmott Dixon’s employees on the environmental goals and initiatives of the company. Following the visit, I’m going to add examples of what I learned and experienced in Uganda in the training I deliver, to share my experience and community stories and show the positive impact the project is delivering.
*Willmott Dixon became the UK’s first carbon neutral construction company in 2012. To complement internal initiatives, the company has supported a number of global carbon offset projects to reduce company emissions to net zero, and support “community transformation” and “tackle social exclusion”, in line with the core values of the business and the aims of the Willmott Dixon Foundation.