Katrin Puetz – Founder of (B)energy

Running! I believe common practise can never lead to maximum productivity, because there is no common business. Being productive as an entrepreneur means having unusual ideas, the confidence to realize them and the strength to deal with the consequences. A clear mind and a fit and healthy body help to do this and running is my way of getting to this state.

Katrin Puetz never worried about a straight-lined CV. This makes it difficult to define her profession: she is a cabinet maker, a bull catcher, a bread baker, a cheese maker, a roof tiler, an environmental scientist, an agricultural engineer and eventually the inventor of the biogas backpack and head & heart of (B)energy, a social biogas business. After finishing school in 2000 she was chosen by FM Feine Möbel GmbH as the first female apprentice for a three year cabinet making apprenticeship in Germany where she was “drilled” to make high-end design furniture at maximum speed and perfection in a small 5 men workshop. She proved her ability as a woman and her final examination piece was awarded on a national level in the design competition “Die Gute Form”. She continued cabinet making in Tasmania for only 3 months and changed the profession for 1.5 years to catching wild bulls in the Australian Outback. This unusual job made her extend her practical skills portfolio by metal work, car mechanics, spectacular driving and general outback survival. Back in Germany in 2005 she entered the university with high expectations for a bachelor degree in Ecological Impact Assessment in Koblenz. Afterwards, she spent 3 months working for an Agroforestry project in Rwanda, where the mindset for her current attitude toward development aid was formed. She decided to re-joined university for a master course in Agricultural Engineering in Hohenheim in 2008. Her university efforts were recognised by the Studienstiftung des Deutschen Volkes with a scholarship and both thesis were awarded (Koblenzer Wirtschaftspreis and NatureLife Price). In 2011, the Institute of Agricultural Engineering, University of Hohenheim, offered her a position as Ph.D. student to continue the work she started with the development of the biogas backpack as her master thesis. Within the following 2.5 years she focused on the development of other low-tech and mobile biogas technologies while partnering with a German company as well as with Addis Abeba University, who both supported the research – actual demand and local efforts were the conditions for her continuation on this topic. In 2013 she accepted the offer of Horn of Africa Regional Environment Centre (HoA-REC) under Addis Abeba University to test her technologies and the social business approach of selling biogas in biogas backpacks in several pilot projects in Ethiopia. 1 year was sufficient to prove the potential of both and the biogas backpack was awarded in the empowering people award by the Siemens Foundation. In July 2014, she founded (B)energy, a company through which she now markets mobile biogas solutions in a special social business way. (B)energy Germany is the franchisor and local (B)franchisees are the ones who make the technology, know-how and business opportunity available for end-users in their countries. Katrin Pütz with (B)energy stands for a social business that strictly excludes the use of “free money”. She wants to show that independence for people in developing countries can be achieved by totally redesigning the current aid-driven approach.

Where did the idea for the biogas backpack and (B)energy come from?

From love and anger! When I worked in my first African country I was confronted with development aid and I had difficulties to understand the approach. What international organisations were doing to “help” poor people made no sense to me: why were “beneficiaries” paid to participate in training and then paid to cultivate their own fields? Why was there no focus on technical improvements in the agricultural sector and no business approach included for independent development? I left my job and went back to university to change directions – from environmental science to agricultural engineering. I felt like I had to do something tangible about this situation and when I learned about biogas, from scientific basics to high-tech systems in Germany, I found what I had not even been looking for. I loved this technology! I started to research about biogas in Africa and I found the so-called National Biogas Programs. I was happy that biogas had already entered there, but I was very surprised about the aid and subsidy-driven approach of household installations designed to provide individual households with energy for cooking and lighting. I could not imagine that this would ever become an independent sector and requested evaluation reports from the implementing organisations. My expectations were confirmed.
Anger about the typical aid approach spoiling the chance for biogas and the love to a technology with such great potential to reduce the struggle for cooking energy while making people independent made me develop the business model “biogas as social business” as well as the transport container for biogas – the biogas backpack!

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I currently live in Ethiopia and there is only one thing many of my days have in common: I go for a run in the morning. At this stage of developing the social franchise system and scaling my business, there is no typical day, but there is a huge variety of different days. It includes running from offices to offices, digging through local material shops for useful raw materials for production, importing machinery and spending weeks in customs, looking for rental space, setting up the machines, getting them to work, producing the first products, installing biogas systems, evaluating the market, training partners and new staff, developing stoves and prototyping them with local producers, testing, modifying, negotiating. It can sometimes be weeks in the office preparing contracts and agreements, designing manuals and training material, coordinating international orders and arranging the production in Germany.
It is not always possible to be satisfyingly productive but to make an office day productive a long run in the fresh air before work helps to make a plan, get good ideas and stay concentrated. Changing “offices”, this means in this case between my house, a co-working space or random cafes with WiFi helps to not feel lonely, especially when working alone for weeks. For practical work related to production of biogas systems and installation it is good to check whether there is electricity before actually going to the workshop or reminding people to have breakfast before coming to the installation site – productivity here is reached by the ability to improvise, sticking to a well prepared production plan does not help during power cuts.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I can get very excited when I have a new idea. The I first try to find a good partner, a soulmate who can be convinced to try it out. Sometimes my ideas are too optimistic for others to imagine – sometimes this is good and I let go of the idea. If I am too convinced of my own great idea I risk it and do it. There is no big strategy behind this, it happens intuitively.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

What I want to show with (B)energy is that development aid has to be reinvented and I find out more and more that this is not only my impression. There are people spread all over the world who want to join (B)energy to prove this! This is the start of an amazing movement! Let’s hope this is not just a trend!

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Running! I believe common practise can never lead to maximum productivity, because there is no common business. Being productive as an entrepreneur means having unusual ideas, the confidence to realize them and the strength to deal with the consequences. A clear mind and a fit and healthy body help to do this and running is my way of getting to this state.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

This is a difficult question, because I have done so many different jobs and I cannot say any of them was bad after all– I love work!
Maybe the worst job was the beginning of my apprenticeship for cabinet making in Germany. I was the first female apprentice in this men’s company that produced high end design furniture where not mm but nm where the scale of acceptable tolerance between parts. As an apprentice you start down below, you have to learn quickly and you have to prove that it is worth educating you over 3 years. I hated it, cleaning the workshop for the x-time, being yelled at when there was a shade of dust left on the saw and not being allowed to do any serious work. So I nearly lost the job at the end of the probation period, because I was apparently to slow. My pride kicked in and could not let the first female apprentice fail. I had to make a decision and actually created a story my former colleagues still tell today – the 180° turn. In this company I learned what it means to work with perfectionism, to plan all possible steps ahead, to be extremely fast ad precise and to never not find a solution. And years later I realised that the treatment I got there, although it could hardly have been any stricter, was a great commitment and effort of my boss. It takes a lot to turn a young person into a professional cabinet maker and he never gave up. Today we are great friends.

There are parts of other jobs that were bad and I would never do again. For example during my time in Australia, when I worked as Bull Catcher for 1.5 years, I had to castrate old, wild stallions at full consciousness. Up to today I regret that I did not make an effort to prevent this from happening – although I know I couldn’t have.

And although I thought it could not get physically much harder than bull catching there is one job that exceeded it: roof tiling. This is one of the toughest jobs I have done and although the view from roof tops, especially in Switzerland, is amazing, every part of your body aches at all times, because your work position is so unfortunate. I certainly learned that cleaning the roof before fixing the horizontal beams is extremely dangerous, but luckily I was wearing a blower motor on my back, so that I got hung up like a turtle when I broke through the 4 mm HDF board – without the blower I would have hit the concrete ground 7 m below me.

One job related to what I am doing now I would consider bad, because I did it although I knew it would fail. But I had to do it to proof the concept – it was about one of the most important principles of (B)energy: none of our products can be used in projects that are donor funded and people get the technology for free. So people in an African country were used for a pilot project where the technology was tested, it worked well and as always the people were left with knowing about a great solution and no access to it – the backpacks were damaged after some time and nobody there to service them. I consider this a very bad job!

I always only did jobs where I knew I would learn significantly new things, never just for money. So the learnings are very diverse and the combination of learnings formed my personality and skills and created a confidence that allows me to do what I do now with (B)energy.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

There is no need to start again when you are yourself and stick to your principles. If you know your aim, the reason for your work or business then you can’t really go wrong. I have been able to be strict with myself, although it often means to reject big contracts. Whatever happens alongside that are important learnings which are very important and you cannot and do not want to miss by turning back time!

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Stick to your principles, I repeat them over and over again, treat everyone the same, be open for discussion and adaptation, work together with the competition, but differentiate from them. For me the reason why I do this business is very clear and if I am not able to run my business my vey particular way, then it is not worth for me to run (B)energy any longer. In this case it means: there is no way I would sell my technology to an aid organisation that implements my technology by ginving it away for free in a country where we do not have a service infrastructure . I have a lot of requests and I repeat it over and over again: I disagree with this undignifying approach of treating poor people with pity and it is destructive to the whole biogas sector (and economy in general) to give a way technology. NGO’s who want our technology have to sign a “No market distortion Agreement” with us in which they agree to not giving the products to their beneficiaries under market price or even for free.

I recommend this to any business that works in “developing countries”, if you care about the people and the country you are operating in, don’t use free money to establish, run or keep your business alive!

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

The strategy I am following to grow (B)energy is social franchising, that means in this case franchising the approach and technology of (B)energy. I try to set up my company in a way that it can be easily replicated anywhere in the world with very little investment by locals with local money and local adaptations. The first step to becoming a franchisee is to implement the (B)ginner Kit. This is a variety of biogas systems and a training that gives anybody the chance to test the market in a particular location for these products and the idea of selling biogas. When the (B)ginner Kit has been marketed successfully and the (B)ginner is a great business partner who understands and follows the social business principles of (B)energy, the next step is to become a (B)franchisee, who then officially represents (B)energy in this region or country.

I only offer the solution, but the initiative for actually solving the energy problem has to come from a local person, who feels responsible for his/her own people and at the same time understands the market, the mentality of the people etc. to make this successful – and of course who realizes the business opportunity.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

A failure can be reported from a former little business I wanted to start. Reading is not exactly my favourite hobby, but reading in bed could be ok, if it was not so uncomfortable. I developed the Leserahmen (bookframe), a wooden frame suspended from the ceiling over your bed. You can read without holding the book. I partnered with a cabinet making friend and we invested into a series of 400 pieces of this Leserahmen which we never managed to sell, because our marketing was basically non-existant… We moved on with other things!

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Leserahmen, it is a great product, we sold about 20 pieces on a very small Christmas market. There is potential, but it requires some marketing action!

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

It was less than $100, but it feels worth at least $100: after nearly one year of trying to manufacture good quality and low cost biogas stoves locally in Ethiopia I changed partners and we invested into getting parts for the stoves punched out by a machine instead of cutting them by hand. This will be a great step in terms of quality and production time – little things can make you really happy in this environment here!

Personally, I spent about $100 for a new cylinder for my two stroke motorbike, because it broke down on me in the dark in the middle of Addis and it is my only efficient means of transport. But to be efficient it’d better work.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

I am trying out Wave as an online accounting tool that could be used by my franchisees all over the world. It is easy to understand and free, but there is no offline mode, which might not be suitable for people in countries with slow or unreliable internet.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Green Energy for a billion poor by Nancy Wimmer. If you doubt that renewable energy technology can work through a social business model in developing countries than this is the proof. A must read for anyone working in developing countries!

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Muhammad Yunus – founder of and fighter for the idea of social business.
Anja Förster and Peter Kreuz – German “Buiness-Querdenker” and whenever I feel alone with my unusual business principles I read in one of their books and realize – some people became very successful with their crazy looking ideas. So no reason to loosen up.


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