[Stoves] Why is it still so difficult to design cookstoves for 3 billion people?

Xavier Brandao xvr.brandao at gmail.com
Tue Jun 14 00:16:35 MDT 2016


Hello Stovers!

I haven't posted for a long time, but reading the Stovelist is still a 
real pleasure to me: lively debates, breakthrough stove science, many 
people working on many initiatives, with a lot of energy, that's great 
to see, that's emulating!
Sorry for the long email, but there are here a few ideas I wanted to 
develop.

It's been some time since I wanted to share this article from the 
Guardian, it was sent to me by Minh, a previous colleague of mine, who 
also worked on the GERES project in Cambodia. I don't think it has been 
shared on this list, but I think it talks about just the most 
fundamental of our problems:

http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/cookstoves-design-poor-communities-refugees-unhcr-ikea

"*With all the knowledge and technology we have at our disposal, why is 
it proving so difficult to design and create simple and efficient 
cookstoves for the three billion people who use them in the developing 
world?*"
is the question asked by T. Alexander Aleinikoff, the United Nations 
deputy high commissioner for refugees.

The question I would have is more the following: "why don't we know why 
it is proving so difficult?"
I mean, after decades of stove development and dissemination, there's at 
least one thing we should know, it's where our difficulties come from!

But here's a tentative answer to Mr Aleinikoff question: the principles 
behind biomass combustion make it extremely difficult to do stoves that 
are both cheap and practical, and very clean. But, like anything, I 
believe this is not impossible, and this is a problem we are working on 
tackling.
And for now, when a stove developer decides to make a stove, he/she 
chooses almost systematically the latter aspect: clean combustion. You 
know the rest of the story: the stove is expensive and impractical to 
use, barely good enough to boil water for tea, and users don't buy it or 
use it.
I'm being caricatural but this is what happens too often.


/*Stove science is lagging behind, not stove marketing*/

I have done a great deal of reading since I've started working on 
stoves, years ago. Reports are piling in our digital library at Prakti. 
We will keep reading and piling them, for sure. At the same time I have 
been trying to extract the very nectar of these reports, and try to get 
an understanding of what really matters.

In my opinion the stove sector knows what works in terms of 
dissemination, distribution and marketing. Most of the reports are about 
marketing and business models. Marketing to the BOP is very well 
documented. It seems to me that every new edition of Boiling Point from 
HEDON talks about this or that project: involve women vendors, 
demonstrate the stoves, pay attention to early adopters and opinion 
leaders, use mobile phone technologies, listen to the feedback, find 
financing solutions, etc. I think we know all that. And some projects 
are working great. You do good marketing, you make a lot of efforts, you 
reap the rewards.
But all agree it starts with one thing, it starts with a great product.

This is where the stove sector is lagging behind. No offense meant to 
all the great researchers working on stoves.
Stove marketing is currently waiting for stove science. Stove science is 
lagging behind, because as I mentioned stove science is so complex. Many 
challenges come with clean combustion. Marketers wait for scientists to 
sort a few things out: scientifically correct, and scientifically 
relevant protocols first. Then A LOT of testing will be necessary, a lot 
of data, to understand combustion, to understand variables, to 
understand stoves. Then, good design, good engineering, great products. 
Once the great products are there, salers and marketers and project 
implementers are reading to pick them up, and to sell them to the BOP.
A side note: I'd love to see HEDON and similar publications focus more 
on the hard science, and how to help it, to accelerate it. These are 
questions worth writing about.

So what I call a great stove is not a Tier-4 stove that works perfectly 
in controlled testing settings. I am gonna be again very caricatural: 
Tier-4 is accessory, it is bonus.
A great product is simply product a customer loves, buys and uses. A 
great stove is a stove that is used.

Some of you certainly experienced that: you give one day your new 
prototype to a woman user. Skeptical at first, she agrees to leave her 
traditional stove for a week, and start using your new stove. You come 
back one week later. She is using it every day, for lunch and dinner. 
She loves it. She put her ceramic stove on the side, actually, it is 
nowhere to be seen. Your new stove has become the kitchen stove.
It's only for experiencing this kind of feeling that I work so hard. 
This is when this happen to you that you know you have a great stove. 
Adoption.


/*Cookstoves: super practical vs super clean */

I picture the stove sector as a large mountain, with 2 camps on its two 
feet. The 2 camps are separated by the mountain in the middle.
•    In one camp the infamous smoky traditional stoves, and very next to 
them, the vast majority of users, using them every day
•    In the other camp, stove developers and manufacturers, reaching 
Tier-4 in their expensive labs, with complex technologies and expensive 
stoves. And their very limited dissemination numbers.

The 2 camps don't communicate much with each other. What happens is that 
often a new recruit joins the stove developer camp. He/she chooses the 
techno-push approach. The new comer comes up with a slick design, cool 
materials, excellent lab results. But many restrictions are imposed to 
the product use, it should take this fuel, not this fuel, be lit this 
way, be tended this way, etc. And as Crispin was mentioning in one of 
his last posts, so many important things are left during the development 
process.
Great disappointment is the reward of so much of work when the users 
don't accept the new product.

Priya Karve rightly emphasizes the importance of delivering a cooking 
service, not a cooking stove. At Prakti we work on the "cookstove 
system" (stove + fuel + cooking vessel + operator + burn cycle). 
Traditional stoves give an excellent cooking service! They are great 
cooking tools! They are just awfully dangerous for health.


/*Next actions: a few ideas*/

I believe both camps can meet together, on top of this mountain. 
There'll be extremely clean and usable stoves, hopefully soon. There is 
some good progress happening already.

But to be sure to succeed, I would start my climb at the basecamp where 
all users already are.

What I think stove developers should do:

•    Change your perspective: consider that traditional stoves are 
great. That they are fantastic. Because people have been using them for 
thousand of years. They must have something special, right? Start by not 
judging them.
•    Spend a lot of time with the users. See them cooking. Cook 
yourself, cook on the traditional stove. See how easy it is with the 
traditional stove.
•    Then build your own stove based on the traditional stove. Big 
stove, easy to use, sturdy, large opening, easy to tend, large 
combustion chamber, lot of power, fast to cook.
Give it to users. Have 
them use it, have them like it.
•    Your stove is being used everyday, it is being adopted. 
Congratulations! Additionally, you might have seen by now, and your 
future customers remarked it too, that the new stove, even if it's far 
from being Tier 4, is actually much less smoky than the traditional stove..
•    You've reached your usability baseline, that's your prerequisite, 
the bar has been set. Don't cross it now. Always keep the stove as usable.
•    Set a bar also for price. Keep the stove cheap. Its production must 
be affordable. This is a prerequisite too.
•    From there: work on improving performance: emissions and wood 
savings. It will be difficult. But you can improve it, by a lot.
•    If you are working on a breakthrough technology, see how you can 
introduce it to your usable cheap stove, without lowering the bar you set.
•    Work on the breakthrough technology in isolation, if necessary. If 
the technology is not ready to be engineered into a good stove, so be it.

At Prakti, this is what we are currently doing, working both on 
incremental progress, and breakthrough technologies. Both are difficult, 
but both hold promises.

I was saying previously that stove marketing 
was waiting for stove science. In fact, it's not. It cannot wait. Stove 
are being sold, marketed, for better of for worse. Funders, programme 
managers, private companies, want to see stoves in the field, they want 
to see numbers.

Now, in my picture, I didn't mention that great projects, not only in 
humanitarian context, are on the other side of the mountain, they have 
chosen to improve traditional cookstoves, with simple design changes. 
GERES, GIZ, SNV among others have worked on such projects. Materials 
must be found locally, price must be cheap. Local artisans must be the 
manufacturers of the stove. They have had great success, large numbers 
disseminated.

This is a proven approach, but what I advocate is to go even further, 
and businesses and manufacturers are part of that.
It is not to improve a traditional stove, but to develop a new stove, 
that has the same qualities as this traditional stove. This is a small 
nuance. And work on making this stove clean.
The approach is to use much more science, much more engineering. To 
think in business terms. Make a product which can be mass-manufactured, 
which can be scalable. Our customers love the portability of our stoves, 
this is for example something we want to keep.

It is said there is not one-size-fits all. That's debatable. Have you 
seen how similar mud stoves in Africa, in Asia look like? Close to the 
ground, big front opening. Why is the Jiko such a hit, all over Africa? 
Isn't the 3 stone fire the world's most successful one-size-fits all model?

We need funding to go to R&D. This is something I advocated at the Clean 
Cooking Forum in Delhi last October 2015, and is still very actual to 
me. At Prakti we've been very lucky to have funding from the GACC and 
other funders for our R&D work. It helped a lot. This needs to continue, 
and on a much larger scale.
Radha Muthiah rightly says in the article that, these are the article 
words, "the market is fragmented, with a lot of small and medium-sized 
entrepreneurs who may not have the appropriate design and manufacturing 
skills". I fully agree with that. A possible way to address this issue 
is to fund work that can benefit to the whole sector, especially R&D 
work. Besides testing and protocols, works on materials, work on design, 
work on combustion. Crispin said in the volume 69, issue 8, that the 
long term future of stove materials is glass and ceramic, and more 
investment should go in the research on those. There are several areas 
that research can explore.

Companies sell shampoo to the BOP, they sell soft drinks. Here in India, 
cheap smartphones are everywhere. A lot of R&D money has been spent so 
these products could be made, and now successful technologies and 
successful marketing go hand-in-hand.
There is no reason that we cannot achieve that soon as well with cookstoves.

Xavier Brandao

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