Editor's Note: This post marks the third in a short series we're featuring on the Unreasonable at Sea program. Check out the first installment "Entrepreneurs Take on the World -- By Cruise Ship" and the second "Unreasonable at Sea: An Update From Cesar Harada of Protei."
In January, 11 companies set sail on a journey with Semester at Sea to launch their businesses into the global market. With just one month left in the ocean-bound accelerator, CEO of Prakti Design Mouhsine Serrar checked in with us from South Africa on his progress.
Prakti's mission is to provide people in developing nations with a safe alternative to cooktop stoves and to empower the entrepreneurial women who operate them. Smoke from cooking fires is responsible for killing more than 1.6 million people every year, says Serrar. He adds that it's also a constant contributor to long-term health problems and environmental damage.
Serrar knows of what he speaks. As a native of Morocco, a country where cookstoves are ubiquitous, he has a personal connection to this international issue. But it wasn't until the mid-2000s, after Serrar had worked as a mechanical engineer in the U.S. for nine years, when he got the urge to make a change. In 2008, he launched Prakti, which was 100 percent funded by its co-founders until July 2012 when the company received a $200,000 innovation prize.
Prakti's stoves claim to cut fuel use in half and reduce the smoke emitted by 70 percent, yet still accommodate traditional cooking techniques. One of Serrar's goals for Unreasonable at Sea was to create relationships with manufacturing arms and distributors around the world.
Serrar, 39, has found the opportunities to learn innovative approaches to business through workshops on design thinking and rapid prototyping advantageous to his company's growth. Serrar adds that he's also benefitted from the ability to meet with mentors, collaborate on projects with students and discuss common entrepreneurial issues among CEOs of fellow startups.
Yet perhaps there are too many opportunities present on the cruise ship dubbed the MV Explorer at times, he admits. While most treps might find the challenge of not being constantly connected to their life back home the hardest part, Serrar has struggled with the balance of shipboard offerings and running a business. "Some are so amazing that one cannot skip. At the same time, we have a business to run, and Prakti's demands on my time are unpredictable."
Serrar also says the level of camaraderie on Unreasonable at Sea has been surprising. "What could be lived as a competition is not the case on the ship. We are helping each other, advising, sharing our experiences and strengths."
Over the course of the program, Prakti has set the ball in motion with several new funding partners, as well as connected with OneEarth Design, another stove enterprise. Prior to the voyage, the company distributed in four countries -- Haiti, India, Sudan and Nepal -- where 250,000 people worldwide use a Prakti stove to cook their meals. But soon, even more global citizens will enjoy its merits, as the company formed partnerships in Mynamar.
Thanks to the sovereign state's recent series of reforms, this spring's voyage was able to dock in the once-repressed nation for five days. "Myanmar was beautiful to visit, and a great place to [introduce] cookstoves," Serrar says. "Thanks to the ship, we were able to carry 10 stoves with us to start a distribution pilot."
While in Rangoon, the former capital, Serrar's team sold the three stoves and logged other orders, as well as connected with a sales rep in the country. "He is doing great," Serrar says, "sharing more info about the market, translating our brochure in local language, starting Facebook for 'Prakti in Myanmar.' Having an active, effective and self-managing country representative in Myanmar is priceless."
As the ship visits its final three ports, Serrar will amp up his research to provide additional solutions to the countries he plans to service. "We will explore, learn and connect as much as possible with the stove sectors in Africa."
Kristin Luna is a Nashville-based journalist who has written travel and news features for Newsweek, Forbes, Redbook, Self and countless others, as well as several guidebooks for Frommer's. Kristin previously sailed with Semester at Sea in 2011 as the assistant field office coordinator. You can follow her global exploits via her award-winning blog Camels & Chocolate.