New Cookstove Yields New Model For Social Entrepreneurs
This post was originally produced for Forbes.
In the past, I’ve covered cookstoves five times, excluding the time I went to Nepal to help locals install cleaner cookstoves in village homes up in the Himalaya. We’re here again, but we’re turning our focus on the business model rather than the cookstove.
For social entrepreneurs who really want to make a difference for people in the developing world, helping locals to import technology from elsewhere can be counterproductive because cash leaves the local economy and opportunities for entrepreneurs may be limited.
Anthony “Tony” Robinson, not to be confused with Tony Robbins, is a professor at Trinity College Dublin in Ireland; his research into energy and thermal conduction has helped him design a simple stove that generates electricity while a family cooks on the stove. More importantly, he’s developing a new way to get the stoves into local consumers hands in Malawi.
Anthony Robinson, courtesy of Trinity College Dublin
“We are attempting to develop a business model for developing world technologies, in this case clean energy technology. We believe that if a technology is to be sustainable, from an economic standpoint, then it must be engineered in such a way that it is at an appropriate technical level for local manufacture (close to consumer manufacturing),” he says.
By manufacturing the stoves in country, the skills necessary to service and repair the stoves will also reside in country. This will also serve to keep costs low and the profits circulating in the local economy.
“Our model would start with an appropriate technology with few imported components. The system would be manufactured and assembled by local co-ops and than sold by micro-financed small entrepreneurial enterprises,” Robinson says.
Still in a pilot phase, the team has just five full-time people and a few dozen others working at the periphery of the project. The business is set up as a nonprofit.
The goal, Robinson says, is not to create a large organization, but instead to empower local entrepreneurs. ”We want to start businesses, but do not have a desire to be part of them. We would measure success by when the technology and associated businesses are independent and we can step away from them.”
To understand how the business will work in country, it will be helpful to learn more about the simple stoves, the conditions in which local people are living, and the years of laboratory and field research that has gone into the design.
Robinson has identified five problems associated with cooking and lighting homes in the developing world:
Smoke and toxic fumes from open-fire cooking pose one of the most severe health risks in the developing world; it is the #1 killer of children under five for example
Collection of fuel for cooking can take tens of hours per week, primarily undertaken by women and children, burning precious calories and time and often taking them from the safety of their community
Overuse of wood fuel is causing extreme deforestation, soil erosion and contributing to global warming
Lighting requires “further exposure to smoke and toxic fumes and risks of house fires
An exorbitant proportion of income, if it can be afforded, spent on candles or paraffin for the worst quality of light
Limited ability for after dark income generating activities, socializing or studying
He adds, “Everybody suffers, but women and children are particularly vulnerable.”
Mobile phones, he says, represent a lifeline for local people, but they often lack an affordable way to keep them charged. He says, “They are used for ordering seeds and fertilizer, selling produce and products, doing banking transactions, keeping in touch with friends and family and so much more.”
Anthony Robinson in Malawi, courtesy of Trinity College Dublin
The hybrid stove-electric generator Robinson is developing “consists of a locally made efficient clay cookstove and a thermoelectric generator (TEG) system.”
The unit is simple, by design. “The stove is significantly more efficient that the traditional open-fire, meaning less fuel and less smoke and toxic fumes. The TEG extracts a very small portion of the heat from the fire and converts some of this heat into electricity. With some innovative circuitry, the system allows for charging of phones, low powered radios and other rechargeable batteries such as those in LED lanterns and flash-lights.”
A critical lesson from the design stage of the stove was working with local people. Robinson has used a scientific approach, incorporating data logging devices attached to the prototypes deployed in the homes of families in Malawi in three successive trials. They also followed up with surveys. “Together with survey data, the information was used to re-engineer the TEG-Stoves in such a way that the technology evolved iteratively to something that worked and was valued. In essence, the technology has been designed by the end user,” Robinson says.
Robinson and his team have faced two big challenges, he says. The first challenge has been building something from scratch in Ireland that will not only function, but that can also be manufactured in Malawi. The second, has been to reach the lowest possible price point. These are near universal considerations for social entrepreneurs in the developed world hoping to support communities in developing countries.
The stoves as presently designed have their limitations, Robinson acknowledges. The electricity generated is modest and will only power low-power devices like cell phones, radios and LED lights. At low volumes, the cost is prohibitive and getting to scale is a challenge. The key, he believes, may be micro-loans for the purchases.
“Whether it is this TEG-Stove technology or the next technology, what we are trying to do is a notably different approach to what has been attempted in the past,” Robinson says, referring to a business model focused on the process more than the product.
He contrasts the approach he’s using with infrastructure projects that sometimes go awry. “The conventional model for energy technology deployment, such as that of solar PV, has typically been to show up, install and commission the system and leave. This same technology deployment model is not isolated to the energy sector, but also for water and sanitation, health etc. But technologies need to be maintained and repaired which requires infrastructure to support and sustain the technology. Simple things like the lack of spare parts have brought down the best solar installations,” he says.
“Our hypothesis is that if the technology is designed for the people and by the people and it can be manufactured in-country, then the people will have intellectual ownership of it. We believe (hope) that this strategy may make the difference and pave the way for appropriate and sustainable technology development across all sectors,” he concludes.
On Thursday, April 7, 2016 at 3:00 Eastern, Robinson will join me here, live from Ireland, to discuss the stove and the business model associated with bringing it to market. Tune in here then to watch the interview live. Post questions in the comments below or tweet questions before the interview to @devindthorpe.
The post New Cookstove Yields New Model For Social Entrepreneurs appeared first on Your Mark On The World.