“StoveTec’s advantage over competitors?
30 years of building and testing rocket stoves for the developing world.”
At The Charcoal Project we believe that manufactured stoves – that is, stoves produced using industrial processes that churn out thousands of units without breaking a sweat – represent the best option for the accelerated and large-scale adoption of energy efficient cookstoves.
This does not mean local stoves don’t do a good job. Many of them do and in many cases – if not all – they provide tangible advantages to three-stones-and-a-rock.
In the end, however, we think that only large-scale industrial production of clean cookstoves can effectively and quickly reduce the ranks of the 3 billion energy poor people using inefficient cookstoves.
We set out in the spring to better understand the business of manufactured stoves, the opportunities available to stove entrepreneurs, and the challenges they face in their effort to achieve scale. Envirofit, World Stove, and BioLite are some of the manufacturers and designers that we’ve talked to so far.
Our tour d’horizon brings us now to the cradle of the rocket stove, which is probably the most widespread type of stove in the world. The stove was developed in the mid-80s by the Aprovecho Research Center, the 30-year old, Oregon-based stove testing and development institute.
To help fund its research, and to facilitate the adoption of stoves around the world, Aprovecho founded StoveTec, an income-generating venture that manufactures and sells various models of rocket stoves around the world.
We spoke with StoveTec’s Miles Makdisi about the company’s operations and aspirations.
The Charcoal Project: Before going overseas, I’m curious about StoveTec’s foray into the domestic market. What can you tell us?
Miles Makdisi: Domestic sales are fairly new to us. We’ve actually been surprised by the demand for our products in the US. Requests come mostly from the preparedness and survivalist community. But we also sell to the outdoor enthusiast crowd and the Boy Scouts.
We‘ll be rolling out a matching program very soon where we donate one stove internationally for every stove we sell domestically.
TCP: Switching gears, let’s talk international. What’s the model?
MM: We’re intent on getting the right stove to the right market. Our objective is not just to sell stoves to whoever wants to or can afford to buy them. We want to make sure our local partners, usually a local NGO or social enterprise, has a viable, sustainable business plan in place. In fact, we really kick the tires to make certain our local partner will be successful in the long term because that will increase the chances of the stove project’s success.
TCP: Tell me more.
MM: To give you an idea, we really get involved in training the local population, especially the women since they are overwhemingly the ones doing the cooking.
Also, from a social marketing point of view, it is much more effective to have a woman share her own personal experiences with the stoves than having a man going door to door with the product. That’s why it’s vital for us that the women have a satisfying cooking experience. For example, in Haiti, we made our stoves larger because we discovered it made them more appealing to the women doing the cooking.
Women are a big part of our focus since they are the ones who are most exposed to the noxious fumes in the kitchen. So, if the family can’t afford the stove, we give the cook (usually the mother) the option to train with us for 2 to 4 weeks on how to operate the stove so she can teach others. En the end she gets a free stove in exchange for participation in the training program.
TCP: What about the business side?
MM: Over the past 30 years, Aprovecho and now StoveTec have placed tens of thousands of stoves overseas. Our goal is to generate enough revenue to pay for the costs of providing and distributing the stoves locally. Usually it ends up being a co-investment deal with the local project. But it really depends on the circumstances. If we determine that the local market is a top priority we might finance the bulk of the investment.
TCP: Let’s talk manufacturing and supply-chain. The stoves are manufactured in China and then shipped around the world. Is that right?
MM: Yes. We ship them in 20 or 40-ft containers. A 20-footer contains about 1,300 stoves. There’s minimal assembly required.
One of the keys to the performance of our stoves is the combustion chamber, which is made entirely of refractory ceramic. The ceramic used in our stoves is both durable and lightweight. Traditional refractory ceramic tends to be spongy and soft.
Our manufacturing plant in China is highly specialized and can transform the raw material into a durable combustion chamber.
In terms of markets, we’re in many African countries but we’re constantly expanding our operations. India, South Asia, and Latin America are huge markets.
TCP: What about pricing? How does that work?
MM: Our stoves cost $9-12 to produce, although the cost to consumers depends heavily on market conditions and location. Cost variables such as duties, tariffs, and transportation fees can heavily impact the end price. We do our best to keep the prices of our stoves as low as possible for humanitarian projects, understanding that the households with the most need for the stoves are often those that live in the most poverty.
Profits from the (US) domestic sales of our stoves, regional micro-financing, and sales of carbon credit allow us to distribute stoves to people who otherwise might not be able to afford them.
TCP: What’s the greatest challenge to the large-scale deployment of improved cookstoves?
MM: There is a lot cultural resistance, which is understandable. After all, they’ve been cooking the same way for generations. Plus, improved cookstoves are not exactly status symbols, like, say, a cell phone might be. So social marketing and education are big components of our local strategies.
TCP: There’s been a lot of talk about a stove’s potential for biochar production, which raises the question whether improved stoves are carbon neutral or even carbon negative. Where do StoveTec stand on this?
MM: We consider our stoves to be carbon neutral because they burn the fuel completely. In fact, our stoves are designed NOT to produce any biochar. Our view is that a stove that produces biochar is not using the full calorific potential of the energy contained in the biomass.
We decided to design our stoves this way because in order for biochar to be effective, the user must properly bury the biochar in the soil. Studies show this to be a rare occurrence in the developing world, which means the biochar usually goes to waste.