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Eco Stove Sheds Light on Energy Alternatives

Deyan October 4, 2010

The Social Capital Conference (SOCAP), the largest gathering of people and institutions working to infuse capitalism with new strategic initiatives for social good, is less than 48 hours away. The event’s line up of speakers are some of the most well-known pioneers in philanthropy, social entrepreneurship and business. What I find to be most exciting about this conference is not only hearing from the presumed experts, but discovering the efforts of individuals and start-ups who are starting small and working towards scaling their designs for impact. I chatted (virtually) with one of SOCAP’s Social Entrepreneur Scholars, Jonathan Cedar, about how his innovative eco-friendly cookstove, BioLite, reduces harsh environmental effects while improving the safety and health of those living at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BoP).

design mind: Where did the inspiration for BioLite originally come from?

Jonathan Cedar: BioLite began in 2007 while my founding partner Alec Drummond and I were working as product developers for Smart Design in New York. Alec was excited about the idea of wood burning stoves as an alternative to carrying gas cylinders while camping. We had seen examples of portable wood camp stoves that used fans to make combustion hotter and cleaner, but they all required batteries. To us, this was in conflict with being fuel independent. So, we set about finding a way to run a combustion improving fan without batteries.


dm: BioLite was originally intended as an alternative energy stove for luxury camping.
Why did you decide to expand the concept to be used as an innovative solution to everyday cooking in the developing world?


Jonathan Cedar: Both Alec and I have been interested in socially responsible design since the beginning of our careers. Originally, the camp stove was intended to be a carbon neutral alternative to petroleum cooking in the outdoors. However, about two years into our development, we were attending an improved wood combustion conference (if you can believe such a thing exists) and had our eyes opened to the fact that half the planet still cooked exclusively on solid biomass fires and that this practice was an enormous cause of illness and death due to the smoke. At the same time, our camp stove prototype won first place for cleanest emissions of all the stoves at the conference.  The opportunity to use our technology to help so many people was immediately compelling and from that point forward it became the focus of our efforts.

dm: How does BioLite’s technology compare to traditional camping stoves?

Jonathan Cedar: BioLite stoves are able to capture their own waste heat to generate electricity. In the camping stove this powers combustion improving fans. On the BoP product, we’ve expanded the capacity of the electrical generation to provide charging for cellphones and LED lights in addition to combustion improvements.

dm: What are the harsh environmental effects that open fires often produce and how is BioLite lessening these threats?

Jonathan Cedar: Cookstoves have a long list for harsh impacts. 75% of wood harvested in the developing world is burned as fuel and in many regions biomass cooking is a direct cause of deforestation. Obviously, unsustainable wood harvesting leads to net CO2 emissions. Most recently we’ve started to understand that cookstoves produce huge amounts of black carbon, which is 680 times as potent a climate warmer as CO2.

BioLite stoves mitigate the environmental impact of biomass cooking in two ways. First, our stoves use approximately half as much wood as a traditional open fire and therefore reduce deforestation and CO2 emissions. Each stove saves 1.5 tons of CO2 per year. But perhaps, more dramatically, the thermal fan system in our product is able to reduce black carbon by 98%!

dm: How is this design raising a safer standard of living for women and children in the developing world? In other words, what is the “human impact”?

Jonathan Cedar: Women and children bear the vast majority of the impacts of biomass cooking. Of the nearly two million cooking smoke-related deaths that occur each year, 85% are women and children below the age of five. Our stoves are able to achieve a greater than 90% emissions reduction, which is a tenfold improvement over the best improved cooking products currently available to biomass cooks.

Beyond the health impacts of wood cooking, fuel collection and purchase is a substantial burden on families. Women and children frequently spend five to ten hours collecting wood each week. These hours could be spent studying or generating income for the family. In heavily deforested areas, such as those frequently found near refugee camps, women are often exposed to violence as they venture farther and farther each day to find wood. In regions where fuel is purchased, low income families spend $3-6 per month, a substantial portion of a one-five dollars a day family’s income. Our stoves reduce this fuel burden by half.

dm: Often, when designing for social impact, the concept may seem appropriate when designed in the studio, but it isn’t until the solution is introduced in “the field” that you understand the specific needs of the community you aim to serve.  What insights were revealed when you began testing the stove in the field?

Jonathan Cedar: Our initial field tests were conducted in Myanmar with the assistance of IDE. At the time we used our camp stove design. We quickly learned that cooks were not willing to chop their fuel into the small pieces the camp stove design required.

dm: How did this change the design of the stove?

Jonathan Cedar: We decided that the stove needed to work nearly identically to the open fire, using long uncut sticks that can be continuously fed into the stove without removing the pot. We ended up leveraging the well adopted user interaction found in rocket stoves as a base for applying our technology.

dm: Are people adopting this in India? How are you measuring the impact that it is having?

Jonathan Cedar: Our products aren’t yet in mass manufacture but we will be conducting larger pilot programs over the coming year with the target of mass availability in early 2012. In our pilots we have been measuring impact in a few different ways. In controlled settings you can measure the change in smoke concentrations within the home using electronic equipment, but this is hard to replicate at scale. Over the past year, we’ve been working with the public health department at UC Berkeley to develop small, inexpensive monitors that will record how much someone uses their stove and then wirelessly transmit this data to a central collection facility. We hope that these devices will eventually be installed in a set fraction of our stoves that leave our factory and will provide us with a continuously updated data on our impacts.

That said, cookstoves have been a tough sell in India. Previous products have failed to justify their costs by sufficiently differentiating from the open fire in consumer valuable ways. You’re up against a huge barrier: people have been cooking on open fires for millennia and mitigating the long term, usually slow onset health effects from smoke inhalation, are not necessarily priority investments for low income consumers.

For our product, the cleanest possible combustion is a precondition, but we recognize that we need to do more to catalyze consumer buy in. The ability to deliver economic value through cellphone charging is one key way.

dm: What’s next for BioLite? Are there potential partnerships that you hope for that would further this model or expand its impact in other areas of development?

Jonathan Cedar: We’re in the process of getting ramped up for a year’s worth of pilot investigations which will drive us towards our final manufactured design in 2012. We’re also looking forward to the launch of our camping product in the Spring through a partnership that we’ll announce soon.  Sales from our camp stove will help subsidize our product development and scale up costs for our BoP stoves, which remain our primary focus.

In terms of relationship building, we’re currently seeking partnerships for retail distribution, primarily in India. Reaching the end customer has been one of, if not the, largest issues in rural products.

dm: As a former Senior Designer at Smart Design and now a Social Entrepreneur Scholar at SOCAP, you have a unique understanding of how design can influence people’s behavior and shape culture. What is the role of design in social entrepreneurship?

Jonathan Cedar: I think the best thing designers can offer social enterprise is a relentless focus on the end user’s needs, desires and abilities. If people don’t want our solutions, or can’t afford them, then we’ll never have out intended impact.

dm: What are you looking forward to most about this year’s Social Capital Conference?

Jonathan Cedar: As a designer,  I think it’s  easy to focus on innovation in products or services, but I’m looking forward to learning about new business models and financial tools which can help us deliver our impact to as many people as possible.

During the week of the conference design mind will offer live coverage of the conference through daily blog posts and live tweeting of various keynotes and workshop sessions.

Cross post from frog design’s website.

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