3 top tips for successful, clean and efficient cookstove intervention
For the last 8 years, I have been involved in the cookstove sector, whereas GERES, the NGO I’m working with, has been active on the topic for more than 20 years. We’ve had ups and downs, but all in all, the wealth of experience gathered in more than 10 countries and successful dissemination of more than 3 million units entitles us to draw some basic lessons. Bear in mind that this approach has been developed by an NGO, so not looking for itself at being a sustainable business, but rather aiming at creating sustainable local value-chains. Nevertheless, businesses will find here valuable tips, I believe.
First and foremost, there is no “one size fits all” solution, so don’t start with one technical solution in mind. This is the biggest mistake you could do. Second, there is no shortcut, either financially or more importantly, in time. Don’t expect significant achievements before a few years. When we start a new project or take-over a previous initiative, we work basically the same way, which could be summarized in 3 steps:
1/ Know your target
2/ Provide technical assistance
3/ Leverage working capital for your local business partners.
I think this approach is relevant not only for cookstove markets, but for many projects targeting the BoP, relying on local value-chain for deep market penetration. I’ll try to illustrate these steps with a few tips.
1/ Know you target
Allocate sufficient time to ask yourselves a few questions first:
- What is the goal you aim to achieve with your intervention? Cooking impacts health (household air pollution), local environment (excessive fuel consumption and emission of small particles), global environment (emissions of CO2), and households’ livelihood (price paid for fuel and stove replacement) and living conditions at large (blackened kitchen, fuel collection…). I’m always doubtful of projects claiming to be able to tackle every one of them at once. Chose 1 or 2 of these impacts as your priorities and stick to them. For instance reducing fuel consumption and indoor pollution. You might find out later that the impact on CO2 emissions and household economics is significant, but don’t aim at it in the first place.
- Who are the people you’re targeting? Know the cooking signature of your customers. This is influenced by rural vs urban, traditional stoves in use, type of cooking (frying, deep-frying, simmering, boiling…), kitchen setting, food cooked, fuels, family size, income, proximity to main roads, bazaars, seasons… All is important, leave no question unanswered. People cooking mainly starch food, indoor on a fixed 2 pots stove, for a large family, using medium sized woodlogs will have very different needs than others who might, for instance, cook outdoor on a mobile 1 pot stove, for smaller families, using charcoal and preparing mainly soups and fried vegetables.
- Who is going to produce and sell your product? Our approach is to work with pre-existing local value-chains. Knowing the capabilities of the producers is important. But you also have to know who will be distributing the products, and how. This will help you define the achievable quality or shelf life of your product. For instance, in Cambodia, one stove was selected by the users as convenient, efficient and affordable and by producers as relatively easy to produce with a good quality. However, it was too fragile considering the distribution network (oxcarts). So we finally opted for another, more robust, design.
- Is it a new market for clean and efficient cookstoves? Whether other company or organization already successfully paved the way to raise awareness of the customers, value-chain and local authorities, can make a huge difference in the amount of resources to allocate in marketing. If previous interventions were unsuccessful, with huge promises unkept, on the contrary, you might have hard time building confidence of your target.
2/ Provide technical assistance
Once you are done with these questions, you should have all parameters at hand to determine the most appropriate technical solution. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel, many designs are available for free (on http://stoves.bioenergylists.org/ or http://www.newdawnengineering.com for instance), which you can them adapt to your needs. Try and test them with the users and producers, in real situation, before entering the market. Offering a range of products, even limited, has proved more efficient than to rely on one single product. It could be different varieties of the same product (in size, or external design) or different technologies catering for the variety of cooking signatures encountered within your target population.
Working alongside the traditional production and distribution actors, a big part of your work will be to strengthen local SMEs. While your interlocutors will have significant technical capacities and know their customers, they will usually lack basic business acumen and marketing capabilities. So rather that incentivizing them through direct financial transfer, provide them first with “soft incentives”: business and technical trainings, quality control and assurance, marketing campaigns, engaging them to design, with you, new production, distribution or marketing schemes.
3/ Leverage working capital for your local business partners
Probably, not all of the SMEs you’re working with initially will stay on board with you (or will be able to keep up with your pace). Use the technical assistance step to select the most promising ones, those who you think could do well if provided with the necessary resources to scale-up. Draw business plans, facilitate access to financiers, possibly put in place some partial subsidy mechanisms or even invest yourself in their operations.
There is no guarantee for success, but by following these steps, I believe you’ll be able to avoid the main traps that lie along the path to developing a sustainable clean and efficient cookstove value-chain. If you want to learn more, please visit: www.geres.eu/en or www.stoveplus.org. Happy to answer your questions!
This blog is a part of the July 2017 series on energy access in partnership with Hystra.
Read the full series for more lessons from practitioners, trends in business models, market penetration and understanding and measuring impact in the energy sector.