My favorite exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
I’ve been following this. Thought you might find it interesting.
Cooking Up a Cleaner, Safer Open-Fire Stove
BROOKLYN, NEW YORK — When their prototype cooking stove passed its first trial with flying colors in Ghana, the American designers Jonathan Cedar and Alex Drummond expected it to be equally successful in the next round of tests in India. But then they discovered that very different types of food would be cooked on it.
“The staple dish in Ghana is banku, a starchy mass of corn or cassava dough, and luckily it suited our stove,” Mr. Cedar recalled. “Where we got stuck in India was with flat breads, which need a very hot, very diffuse flame. When people saw the stove, they were like: ‘Oh no, no, no.”’
There was a simple solution: designing different tops for the stove to suit the cooking requirements of various regions. But other problems have proved less tractable in the five years that Mr. Cedar and Mr. Drummond have been developing the BioLite home stove as a safer, less expensive means of cooking for the three billion people throughout the world who cook on open fires.
Mr. Cedar, 31, and Mr. Drummond, 53, are among the growing number of designers who are applying their skills and entrepreneurial zeal to empower the billions of people who lack basic products and services. Developing a cheaper, cleaner method of cooking could make a dramatic difference to many lives. As well as curbing the environmental damage caused by fumes from indoor cooking fires, it promises to reduce the 1.9 million premature deaths linked to them each year. It could also spare people, mostly women and girls, from spending several hours a day collecting fuel, rather than working or studying. Finally, the BioLite stove includes a charging facility, which should save time and money for the millions of people whose homes are located outside electricity grids and who have to walk long distances — and pay hefty fees — to charge their cellphones.
Past attempts by designers to tackle such issues have faltered, often because the products were impractical or not appealing enough to persuade their new owners to use them regularly or to look after them properly. Other stoves were neither as energy efficient nor as reliable as their designers had hoped, or were introduced to developing countries without viable strategies to repair and dispose of them responsibly.
“There is a lot of history in this field, and not all of it is positive,” Mr. Cedar acknowledged. “But we can learn from it.” If BioLite is to succeed, it must find sustainable solutions to the problems. Other recently announced humanitarian design projects face similar challenges, including Little Sun, a solar-powered lamp designed by the Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson and the Danish engineer Frederik Ottesen as an alternative to dirty, smelly, kerosene lighting.
BioLite’s designers, whose design-studio-cum-testing center is in an airy loft in Brooklyn, have had the benefit of time to refine their stove and to finesse the distribution, marketing and maintenance systems that some humanitarian design ventures have neglected.
Mr. Cedar and Mr. Drummond started to develop a zero-emissions wood-burning stove, initially to be used for camping, five years ago when they were employed by Smart Design, a New York design consultancy. They worked on it in their spare time, although Smart allowed them to use its resources. Not until they entered their design in a “clean stove” competition, which it won, did they realize that it could be adapted for use in off-grid communities in developing countries, where it would have far greater impact.
The technological key to their design is a thermoelectric device, which converts the heat produced by burning wood or other organic fuel into electricity. Most of the electricity powers a fan that makes the stove more efficient, thereby saving fuel. The rest can be used to charge portable devices like cellphones and L.E.D. lights. Typically, it takes 20 minutes of charging to produce an hour of talking time on a phone.
By 2009, both Mr. Cedar and Mr. Drummond had left Smart Design and were focusing on developing the cooking stove. By early last year, they had secured $1.8 million of investment. Combined with the income generated by selling a smaller camping version of the stove, which was introduced this month, they expect to have enough funding to complete the project.
After the initial tests in Ghana and India, they started production of 10,000 stoves to be used in advanced trials. The products are manufactured in China by a company they worked with at Smart. “We spend a lot of time there, not just with the management but with the guys on the line,” Mr. Cedar said. “And we’ve seen for ourselves that the working conditions are up to best practice.”
BioLite intends to sell the stoves for $40 each and to entrust local distributors with sales and maintenance. “If people buy a product, they are more likely to value it than if it is given to them,” Mr. Cedar said. “Some of the failures in this field did not treat their users as consumers. They gave them ugly metal boxes and told them they’d be useful, rather than working out what they wanted or needed, and making the products seem aspirational.”
BioLite hopes to resolve such issues in the advanced trials. One will experiment with different ways of marketing the stove in eastern India. Another will test payment packages in East Africa, including subsiding the purchase price with carbon credits. A third trial will analyze the prenatal health benefits of the stoves in Ghana. If all goes well, mass production will begin in the autumn.
“Our goal is to sell a million stoves within five years,” Mr. Cedar said. “Then we want to become the go-to source for energy solutions in off-grid markets for refrigeration, lighting and clean water. But first, we need to get the stove right, so it delivers the health and economic benefits, and doesn’t end up sitting unused in a corner.”
Spotted along the way.