If the culinary cornerstone of a country is roasted meat, it stands to reason that its most celebrated design product be a charcoal oven. Or so thinks Katy Fentress, as she jumps at the chance to interview the brain behind the hugely successful Cookswell jiko line of ovens.
The night was dark and heavy, humidity from the afternoon’s rains rising in a fine but clammy mist. There was no word on when, if ever, the electricity would be switched back on. Our phones were on low battery so we sat on the long balcony of the farmhouse enjoying the sounds of the cool Nyeri night. Only the dull warmth of the little charcoal oven reminded us that dinner was still on the go.
I shone a light on the door of the Cookswell oven as our host pried it open with his tongs. A wave of heat and the sweet rich smell of lamb extended into the darkness. He skilfully extracted a foil-wrapped leg and lay it onto a battered, white oblong platter. With blind strokes, he peeled the meat off the bone and with a flourish of hands, sprinkled salt and then drizzled olive oil onto the awaiting food. We dived in, without light it was impossible to see who was being the greediest so the best policy was just eat until it was finished. Afterwards, our stomachs full, our char-stained mouths cleaned out with long glugs of almost cold beer, we all agreed this had to be the best lamb we’d ever had.
The first time I met Teddy Kinyanjui, the erudite founder of the Cookswell oven product lines, was at one of those Nairobi garden parties where the food is finished before you get there but somehow the booze still flows past the toll of midnight. Teddy was deep in conversation with a friend of mine who sat entranced as he explained, with much waving of hands, why seed bombing was the future of reforestation in Kenya.
“You mean I can just go around chucking them onto green patches on the side of the road?” she asked, thrilled at the prospect of becoming an eco-warrior on her daily drive to work.
“Sure,” he answered, smiling broadly, happy to see his excitement was infectious.
It’s hard not to get excited about the Cookswell jiko mission. Sold in over twenty countries, with a healthy European market and distribution system that sees them regularly sent to different corners of the world, the twenty seven different types of jiko ovens continue to be an industry standard when it comes to low-consumption, efficient charcoal ovens.
Teddy is at pains to point out that the success of his products would not have been possible had his father, Dr Maxwell Kinyanjui, not set out to pave the way before him. “In the 1980s, the Kenyan government hired my Dad to go to Thailand to learn about their bucket stove,” he tells me over the course of a recent phone call. “This was an energy efficient cook stove, the design of which my Dad brought back to Kenya and adapted to local Kenyan cooking and manufacturing techniques”
Once Dr Kinyanjui, who passed away in 2012, had adapted the bucket stoves to suit Kenyan cooking methods, he spent the next fifteen years training local potters and sheet metal workers on how to make them. This locally-centred design proved so popular that Kenyan bucket jikos ended up being replicated across the continent from Madagascar to Sierra Leone and even as far as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Teddy goes proud of his late father’s approach to jiko design and has strived to mimic it in his own business strategy. Another value he shares with Dr Kinyanjui is in regards to energy conservation, specifically on the issue of how to conserve the rapidly diminishing stock of trees that every day in Kenya are cut down and turned into charcoal. “Nairobi alone uses two thousand tonnes of charcoal every day,” he tells me, before launching into a detailed explanation of what he refers to as his “seed to ash” approach.
“My dad and Martin Dunford (owner of Carnivore restaurant in Nairobi.) founded The Woodlands Trust to teach people how to grow trees for charcoal, posts and timber.” One of the things they realised was that the size of charcoal needed to fuel Cookswell ovens did not need to be bigger than the size of an acacia tree branch. What that means, he explains, is that “instead of people cutting the whole tree at the bottom like they do traditionally, you can just prune all of the little small twigs and branches, carbonise them in one of our drum kilns and make a bag of charcoal in a day”. Making a bag of charcoal without felling a tree is an absolutely revolutionary change in mindset, which Teddy says is proving extremely popular around the country.
The next step in the Cookswell mission to encourage sustainable charcoal production was to get people to start planting acacias. “The seed bombs project came about after many years of doing traditional tree planting,” explains Teddy. “I started to notice driving back home, that on the side of the highways there are these acacia seedlings that are doing well without anyone watering them. Turns out the sand lorries that deliver building sand inadvertently transport seeds. I did research and realised that the biggest hurdle to overcome with direct seeding is the fact that they get eaten by little birds and mice, so pelletising them inside a ball of charcoal dust is an excellent way to distribute seeds in hard to reach places”.
The way Teddy sees it, Kenyans are pretty savvy when it comes to the environment. As a result, the next step for him was all about teaching the economics of tree planting. He believes that the secret to successful environmental practices lies in finding ways for people to make money out of them. “It really hits home when people realise that a ten shilling tree seedling is going to be worth a thousand shillings a day in ten or fifteen years. Business-wise, it makes so much sense for us to invest in helping people grow a future source of charcoal. If we want to continue eating nyama choma in the next twenty or fifty years in Kenya, we definitely need to be planting a lot more trees”.
By the looks of it, what Kenyans want to do exactly is eat more nyama choma. Yet elevating nyama choma from a haphazardly chopped hunk of meat on an old wood block, cooked over a roaring flame to something more curated, requires Kenyan customers to be more demanding: about the choice of meat, its ageing, its cut, its rearing, the spices and herbs it is cooked in and finally the medium upon which it is cooked.
If ever there was a truly lifestyle oriented Kenyan brand, Cookswell would have to be it. It epitomises the rugged and unpolished heart of the country combined with it’s desire for efficiency and practicality. Teddy sums up why he believes people love his his ovens, by underlining what he sees lies at the heart of their appeal: “The heart likes it because it’s really nice looking and cooks great food and the brain likes it because it’s ecological, efficient and you save money”.