Monday, November 9, 2015

How Breathing Fresh Air Can Be Electrifying

Sometimes very simple inventions can have life-changing positive impacts.  I've written about one of these before as part of my "Ray of Sunshine" series:  Using old plastic containers to illuminate the homes of the estimated 1.3 billion people in the world who cannot afford electric lights (Some Christmas Cheer: Liters of Light).  Despite the difficulty in finding other Rays of Sunshine amidst the 99.99% negative news these days, I recently came across one that is noteworthy because it is an example of the convergence of simple technology with a business model whose mission is to be financially successful while simultaneously improving the lives of millions of poor people around the world.

The next time you choose to fire up your barbecue to cook those juicy steaks, consider that the World Health Organization estimates that around 3 billion people worldwide are forced by poverty to cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning wood, animal dung, crop waste and coal. Besides the environmental degradation that results from this, the health consequences are staggering:
  • Over 4 million people die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.
  • More than 50% of premature deaths among children under 5 are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution.
  • 3.8 million premature deaths annually from noncommunicable diseases including stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer are attributed to exposure to household air pollution.  (WHO Factsheet)
Entrepreneurs Alec Drummond and Jonathan Cedar didn't start out to tackle this health problem. They were simply avid hikers who didn't want to carry fuel with them for their campstove and wound up inventing something called the Biolite Campstove.  This little beauty is a techie's dream and just the thing for those who like to hike and camp but don't want to give up all the comforts of home. Ignite some twigs, pine cones, or small branches in the stove's fire chamber and the heat activates a thermoelectric generator that powers a small interior fan, making the fuel burn more cleanly and efficiently than a traditional open stove.  As a result, the Biolite stove produces 90 percent less carbon monoxide and 94 percent less smoke than an open fire, and uses less fuel to produce the same amount of heat.

Biolite Campstove
But that's not all. The excess electricity produced by the thermoelectric generator is sent to a USB charging port that can recharge cellphones, cameras, LED lights, or any other device that has USB recharging capabilities.  In other words, you can cook, stay warm, light your campsite, and charge your cellphone all at the same time with a just few twigs of firewood.  The appeal of being environmentally green and also comfy has turned out to be very strong. When Drummond and Cedar first began marketing their stove in 2012 it was an immediate success with the recreational camping market in the U.S.  It retails for about $130 and the rechargeable lights the company offers are about $100 more, well within reason given the cost of other camping gear and the willingness of Americans to spend big bucks on this kind of equipment (a total of $1.5 billion per year, according to Statista.Com).

Early in the development of their product, Drummond and Cedar became aware of the world-wide health problem posed by open-fires in developing countries and saw the potential of their stove for helping solve it.  And they also saw that bringing free electricity to those who need it most could potentially improve the quality of people's lives beyond the health benefits. The problem, of course is that $250 is far beyond the reach of the people who could benefit the most from Biolite's stove and light system -- if they had that kind of money to spare they wouldn't be cooking over open fires in the dark. It also is beyond the financial ability of most charities to distribute large numbers of units that cost that much.

The solution that Drummond and Cedar came up with was to design a simpler and sturdier version and to
Biolite Homestove
finance its distribution in rural developing countries like India, Ghana, and Uganda by lowering the cost in a unique way:

"They quickly dismissed relying on a charity, because there was not one large enough to fund stoves for 3 billion people. Instead, Cedar and Drummond decided to pair the two markets they were interested in: the recreational market in the developed world and the rural, third-world market.

The camping products subsidize the cost of operation––and lower prices in the developing world. BioLite's stove for campers retails for $130 in the United States. A sturdier, more durable and larger version for cooking daily sells for the equivalent of $50 in India and Africa. Cedar calls the business model "parallel innovation."

Most of their revenue comes from selling the camp stoves and other products for recreational use in the U.S. and other Western countries. A smaller share of revenues is from selling camp stoves in the developing world; an even smaller slice of the company's revenue pie comes from charitable grants." (8/26/15, Naveena Sadasivam, )
Although $50 may still seem like a lot for many people in developing countries, the cost can be spread out through charitable loan programs and lowered through reductions in duty and other taxes on imports of clean energy products. Other creative approaches are being championed by organizations such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

It is still too early to document the large-scale health impacts of the Biolite but studies are in fact being conducted.  In the meantime there is inspiring anecdotal evidence of what the HomeStove has meant to the financial status and self-development opportunities of individual people. One example is the case of Erinah, an enterprising woman living in a small town in Africa. Erinah makes her living by working at the local hospital and in her spare time running a small canteen in her village. Through a microloan program she was able to buy four HomeStoves -- one for her business, one for her mother, one for her aunt, and one for her grandfather. Because the HomeStoves use less fuel than open fires she was able to save money that she would have otherwise spent on charcoal or firewood and she paid the loans back in a year.  Her business is more prosperous and the lives of her relatives are easier and healthier (without relying on charity) thanks to an innovative, simple product.

Make no mistake:  Drummond and Cedar are no doubt enjoying the financial rewards of their invention and their marketing strategy, and they are working to make their business even more profitable.  But this is not a case of profiting by exploiting others. The Campstove makes a healthy recreational activity more enjoyable and more environmentally friendly, and the HomeStove greatly improves the healthfulness of people's home environments, reduces environmental degradation, and provides people greater financial security and opportunities for self-development in some of the poorest regions of the world.  It seems to me this is a case of entrepreneurism quite worthy of being a "Ray of Sunshine."

Sources and Resources:
World Health Organization FAQ on Household Air Pollution
Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves
Biolite Campstove and Biolite Homestove Descriptions
Biolite Mission Statement
Brooklyn Startup Tackles Global Health with a Cleaner Stove | InsideClimate News
How Electricity-Generating Cook Stoves Increase Profit and Decrease Suffering | | Observer.Com
How BioLite Is Making The World A Better Place With Thermoelectricity - Earth911.Com 

No comments: