A new stove, by a Brooklyn startup with grand ambitions, is powered by wood or cow dung or whatever other combustible material you happen to have lying around. It generates an almost smokeless, gas-like flame - and also enough electricity to light a room or charge your phone.
BioLite is a company that began as a side project of two men at the design-consulting firm Smart Design. Seeking to build a camping stove that didn't require fuel, Alec Drummond and Jonathan Cedar came up with a design that uses a fan powered by the heat of burning wood to blow air onto that wood and get it to burn much more efficiently.
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In 2012, they started selling online; now their BioLite camping stoves are available at REI and other outdoor retailers. Along the way, though, Drummond and Cedar learned about a global campaign to get cleaner-burning cookstoves into homes in developing countries.
About 3 billion people worldwide depend on open fires or traditional stoves for cooking and heating; exposure to their smoke and fumes is responsible for an estimated 4.3 million premature deaths a year. BioLite's stove technology seemed as if it could help.
So BioLite is going global. It distributed its first 10,000 home stoves last year in Ghana, India and Uganda. In Ghana this was part of a public health trial, funded by the National Institutes of Health, to compare the effects on pregnant women of using BioLite versus gas stoves. In India and Uganda it was a commercial test to find out how much people were willing to pay (current thinking is $50 to $60) and get feedback on how well the stove works. Next spring the company plans to start selling home stoves at scale.
Most earlier efforts to displace sooty open fires with cleaner cookstoves have flopped. India's National Programme on Improved Chulhas in 1985 started distributing 35 million stoves with chimneys that were supposed to vent smoke outdoors but often didn't work well and never really caught on. Soon after that effort wound down in the early 2000s, several multinational companies targeting, what the late management scholar C.K. Prahalad dubbed the "bottom of the pyramid," moved into the Indian cookstove market.
The most ambitious was energy giant BP, which worked with Prahalad's consulting firm, Next Practice, and tried to make money on not the stoves, which could burn either liquefied propane gas or agricultural-waste pellets, but the fuel. Prahalad and Next Practice co-founder Jeb Brugmann wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2007 about how BP worked with nonprofits in India to build "a business ecosystem that brings different economic entities - a global corporation, local social organisations, informal micro-entrepreneurs, and a research institute - into an efficient value chain. "
But it wasn't quite efficient enough. BP spun off the stove effort to its management team in 2009, and First Energy, as the venture is now called, has since shifted almost all its efforts to selling pellet-fueled stoves and boilers to restaurants and other commercial customers.
The problem was that Indian villagers couldn't afford the fuel, said Ethan Kay, who worked at one of the nonprofits involved in the stove effort and wrote his Oxford doctoral dissertation on its struggles. By helping create a market for the agricultural waste, mostly sugar-cane stalks, used to make its fuel pellets, BP drove up the price.
Too, Brugmann said, BP had been hoping to buy an Indian oil company. When it became clear that wasn't going to happen, BP executives lost interest in a stove project that was mainly "about establishing the BP brand in the minds of rural Indians," he said.
Other corporate efforts hatched in the initial enthusiasm for Prahalad's famous bottom-of-the-pyramid thesis, published in 2002, have faced similar struggles.
But Kay, now Biolite's managing director for emerging markets, said he believes the project can work. "We meet users where they are in terms of locally available fuel," he says. And the electricity-generating feature appeals to men who might not otherwise be interested in spending money on a new stove.
The Dutch multinational Philips has designed a similar stove, now manufactured in Lesotho by African Clean Energy, while Fort Collins, Colorado-based Envirofit has already sold simpler clean-burning stoves (minus the fans and electricity generation) in 45 countries.
"If [Biolite] can grow the recreation business and the base-of-the-pyramid business at same time, it's a very different corporate positioning," Brugmann said. By serving both high-end and developing markets with the same basic technology, the company has a chance at achieving scale and staying power.