Can these 'stovers' finally crack the clean cooking problem?

A household using Inyenyeri cookstoves. Photo by: Inyenyeri

SAN FRANCISCO — A Rwandan cookstove company revealed this week that it has raised more money in the past six months than the entire cookstove sector has raised in any single year.

Inyenyeri, a Rwandan company that provides cookstoves to households at no cost in exchange for customers buying their wood fuel pellets, announced at the Clean Cooking Forum in New Delhi, India, that it has raised more than $20 million in loans, grants, and the sale of carbon credits. When used with its wood fuel pellets, Inyenyeri cookstoves reduce emissions by 98 to 99 percent compared to wood or charcoal stoves, the company says, making their stoves Tier 4, the highest performing tier for indoor emissions as defined by the World Health Organization. Inyenyeri follows the “razorblade model,” a business model in which one item is sold at a low price, or even at a loss, because the profits come from the complementary products.

It is a model that can be replicated, said founder and CEO Eric Reynolds, who told Devex he wanted to leave the forum having at least started conversations that could lead to an additional $10 million to support biomass gasification technology.

“After seven years of effort, we only now have a stove that is barely good enough to make our model work,” said Reynolds, who founded the outdoor clothing and equipment company Marmot as well as two other outdoor sports businesses before moving to Rwanda and launching Inyenyeri.  “This is only the beginning of our journey, and the technology can evolve considerably beyond where it is today, and it must.”

An entire sector exists to get the 3 billion people who cook over open fires or with traditional cookstoves to use cleaner methods of cooking. This includes the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership hosting its annual forum in India this week as part of its work to get 100 million households to make the switch to clean cookstoves by 2020.

Yet most improved or efficient cookstoves do not meet the WHO standards for reducing the indoor air pollution that kills 4 million people per year — more than malaria, HIV/AIDs, and tuberculosis combined. While these cookstoves may save women time, spare trees that would otherwise become fuel, and reduce levels of smoke to the point where it cannot be seen or smelled, they can actually increase health hazards by producing smaller indoor particulate matter that enters lungs and bloodstreams more easily.

This is one reason why the sector has developed a reputation for overpromising and underdelivering. But another key problem in the past has been NGOs handing out stoves for free that people will not use, either because they don’t work as well in the field as they did in the lab, break and are not easily repairable, or because women don’t want to change their cooking methods.

“When people get a free stove given to them, they sign a poster that says they will use the stove and won’t sell it, and when the auditor comes, people get the stove out that they were using as a chair and they use it that day,” Reynolds said.

As a consensus emerges that free cookstoves do not work, there is a further debate among “stovers” — as many cookstove professionals call themselves — as to whether biomass cookstoves can be improved to prevent death and disease at the same level as stoves powered by liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG, which achieve the health targets but come at a cost to the environment.

But even those who see either LPG or grid-based electric cooking as the long-term solution for developing countries say that biomass cookstoves must be part of the short-term solution.

So many failures over so many decades have led many funders to give up on clean cooking. But Inyenyeri is gaining the attention of investors and donors whose interest had all but flickered out, and is just one example of a social enterprise that could help the sector move from improved or efficient cooking to clean cooking at scale.

A heated debate

“Cookstoves aren’t rocket science,” said Paul Means, executive director of Burn Design Lab, a nonprofit outside of Seattle, Washington, that provides research and development services for the clean cookstove industry. “They are harder than rocket science.”

One frequently repeated pattern in the cookstove sector is that what works in the laboratory does not translate to the home, with challenges ranging from cultural barriers to technological difficulty to behavior change, he said.

“With rocket science, you have a perfectly clean fuel, it’s easy to burn, and the people operating the rocket are the right stuff, they’re the world’s best,” he said. “What we’re faced with is a very irregular fuel, and the people who are operating these cookstoves, they’re not familiar with this technology.”

Burn Design Lab is just one example of the many organizations that make the Pacific northwest of the U.S. a center of innovation for cookstoves. Every year, they convene in Kirkland, Washington, for a conference organized by ETHOS, or Engineers in Technical and Humanitarian Opportunities of Service, a nonprofit organization that is all about bridging divides between groups based in developed and developing countries working on wood-burning cookstoves. One of the topics of discussion at the conference in January was the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s $10 million contribution to an NIH study on the impact of LPG cookstoves on health in four countries — the largest single grant in the history of the sector.

“In a world of limited resources, and within a sector that has struggled to raise capital, it’s probably inevitable that the Gates Foundation support for an LPG study is seen as coming at the expense of biomass stoves,” said Marc Gunther, a journalist whose coverage of nonprofits and philanthropy includes a recent profile of Inyenyeri. “On the other hand, the study represents an opportunity to validate claims about the health benefits of cookstoves. This is important to the sector’s credibility because so much has been said — and so little has been proven — about the ability of cookstoves to save lives.”

While LPG no doubt burns cleaner than biomass in the kitchen, it is a fossil fuel that is unaffordable for most people in developing countries. It also accelerates the climate impacts that cookstoves are meant to mitigate, and undermines self-sufficiency because it relies on imports, Inyenyeri explained in a case study from Rwanda it is releasing this week at the Clean Cooking Forum. LPG cookstoves still have lower emissions, and therefore better health outcomes, than the current best-in-class biomass stoves, the study says. But biomass stoves are improving each year, and that gap may close more rapidly with research and development support from donors and philanthropists. That is why Reynolds is making the pitch for $10 million to support biomass gasification technology, although it remains to be seen whether the argument will take hold, particularly at a forum with sponsors that include major petroleum companies.

“We are a long way from scaled-up LPG and for many years to come will need some intermediate cooking technology that is affordable and clean,” said Sudhanshu Handa, a lead investigator in a $2.5 million study that is examining the impact of Inyenyeri cookstoves funded by the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences and led by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “This is both due to supply constraints but also demand constraints; people are just too poor to use LPG even if suddenly it was rolled out at scale in Africa.”

The Mimi Moto stoves used by Inyenyeri are made in China, but the company hires local staff for pellet production, maintenance, and customer service. Some initial findings from UNC researchers point to barriers to the adoption of Inyenyeri stoves, including affordability and the pellet supply chain. Humidity, power supply, and equipment are also among the barriers for scaling up the pellet production that has made Inyenyeri so successful.

The pellets turn into gas before they are burned, in a process Inyenyeri advertises to potential consumers and funders as meaning no black pots, no ruined clothing, no sooty walls or ceilings. This resolves some of the problems that tend to come up with biomass stoves. And while not every social enterprise can be the subject of a $2.5 million study, there are other options that exist to monitor and evaluate the performance and adoption of cookstoves.

“Before you subject a poor women to buying an expensive, clean burning cookstove, no matter what model it is, it’s really important to make sure it actually meets her needs before you scale it up,” Tara Ramanathan, program director for clean energy at Nexleaf Analytics, told Devex as she demonstrated StoveTrace, a cloud-based remote monitoring system that transmits cooking data from a sensor on the stove to a server.

The role of donors

A woman and a girl show off the Inyenyeri cookstoves.

Mathuso Jabafu bought a cookstove on credit from African Clean Energy, which manufactures its ACE 1 biomass cookstoves in Maseru, Lesotho, and offers consumers the option to pay over the course of nine to 12 months. She can use any type of biomass fuel, from leaves to sticks to manure, to power her stove, and she told Devex she carries it on her back between her home in Thaba Khupa, where she uses it to cook, and Maseru, where she uses it for her business selling herbal medicine. Her stove comes with a solar panel that can charge its battery, USB ports that can be used to charge mobile devices, and an LED light. She said that because she is saving time and money now that she does not have to purchase LPG for cooking nor paraffin for lighting nor walk to a nearby village to pay to charge phones for a family of five, she is more than willing to pay for the cookstove.

Cookstoves were featured in a recent report from Deloitte supported by Omidyar Network, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation on reaching bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers in low-income markets. The report looks at enterprises that sell “push” products versus those that sell “pull” products. It said that while cookstoves would seem to be pull products because of the cost savings they provide to consumers, they are in fact push products because “due largely to the cultural importance of preserving traditional ways of cooking, selling cookstoves requires significant education and can be met with resistance by purchasers.”

A significant problem in the past was the NGO practice of giving cookstoves away for free. That method is now seen as ineffective. From villages to slums to refugee camps in East Africa, people are selling cookstoves they got for free for a couple of dollars worth of cornmeal, trading in a product they do not want for something they will use for dinner that night. The good intention of distributing cookstoves can lead to challenging environments for social enterprises working to develop products people will pay for.

“That is a failure in market assessment, product design, and hundreds of thousands of dollars wasted in development dollars that could have been diverted toward helping good companies bring in products that people are willing to pay for and use because of the value they'll derive from using them,” said Patricia Chin-Sweeney, co-founder of I-DEV International, a strategy and investment advisory firm focused on impact investing and social entrepreneurship in emerging markets.

She saw women swapping cookstoves for cornmeal when she visited East Africa for work her firm is doing with the World Bank to support a viable clean cooking business ecosystem. In June, the World Bank signed an agreement with Inyenyeri to buy as many as 1 million carbon credits between now and 2023, meaning it will pay the company for each ton of carbon pollution it prevents with its stoves. This built on other examples of development finance supporting market-based solutions for cookstoves, such as the way the U.S. Agency for International Development has supported Burn Manufacturing to expand the reach of its cookstoves in Kenya and Uganda.

Experts who spoke with Devex said the sector is making progress, thanks to companies that are producing valuable products, reaching broad distribution, and drawing investment. But they said donors need to stop flooding the market with products that users don’t want, diluting market viability for these new models that are demonstrating traction. While refugees and other low-income populations can benefit from donated products, there are also large populations who will pay for those products, especially with the right consumer financing models. The global development community should treat the clean cooking sector as a legitimate consumer goods sector, experts said.

“If the Sustainable Development Goals are truly not going to leave anyone behind, we have to address this issue of clean cooking. If we are looking to ensure a world where growth is sustainable for our planet, we have to address the issue of clean cooking. If we are to engage women inclusively and equitably in all of our societies and on productive engagement, we have to address this issue of cooking,” Radha Muthiah, CEO of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, said at the We the Future event organized by the Skoll Foundation and the United Nations Foundation in New York City in September.

She explained that the answer is not to give away stoves, but rather to develop a market for clean cooking solutions in developing countries. The cookstove business needs to treat people as consumers and not beneficiaries, she said. To succeed, the industry must understand consumers’ needs, from how they cook to what fuel they have access to, and provide them with appropriate options, Muthiah said.

“If we are truly to be able to get people to change their behavior and use these stoves and fuels, the whole issue of raising awareness and behavior change becomes such a significant part of the equation,” she said, before a panel discussion that included the producer of a television show called Shamba Chef, which aims to change the way people cook in Kenya.

She explained that this entire industry is built on the back of social entrepreneurs, and issued a call to action for the global development community to consider the clean cooking sector. If this issue is invested in, she said, it can provide a transformative rate of return given how it intersects with 10 of the 17 SDGs.

Making the switch

Reynolds, 65, first visited Rwanda 10 years ago.

“It struck me that the cooking and lighting and energy situation in the household was a complex Gordian Knot,” he said. “I at first was naive like everybody else and thought there was a magic stove.”

But Reynolds learned with time that this sector is more complicated than he ever expected — he estimates there have been 1,200 cookstove ventures in 40-plus years, with not a single one succeeding. So he brought the prioritization of customer service he learned in his previous life to his work on cookstoves. Reynolds continues to insist that if promoters would not use stoves in their own homes, they are hypocrites.

“If you have an NGO mentality and you think ‘I have to make the stove so cheap I can subsidize it,’ then you design stoves that are so cheap they function uselessly,” he said. “They don’t reach health goals, they don’t reach deforestation goals, and, most important of all, the mama doing the cooking hates them.”

Firewood is hard to come by at the Kigeme Refugee Camp, where 18,000 people from the Democratic Republic of Congo have been living since 2012. In September 2016, Inyenyeri opened a shop inside the camp where customers receive free Mimi Moto stoves, which Inyenyeri says are the cleanest biomass stoves in the world, in exchange for purchasing fuel pellets on a monthly basis, or supplying sustainably harvested biomass if they cannot afford to pay. Since the start of the project, more than 300 households have signed up, with 500 people on a waiting list, according to a recent press release from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“This is where stoves have always struggled: The affordable ones are inadequate, and the good ones are unaffordable,” Kevin Starr, who directs the Mulago Foundation, which has provided Inyenyeri with an $800,000 loan, wrote in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Cookstoves need to cut down on the majority of pollutants to reduce respiratory illness, and the only ones that tend to do that are expensive forced-draft models with built-in fans, he said. They don’t tend to meet his checklist for whether things work for consumers, which requires them to be easy to use and easy to fix. In fact, the cookstove sector is now dealing with the stove stacking dynamic, where people use their new stoves along with their old methods of cooking, which is why Inyenyeri provides families with as many stoves as it takes to replace their old methods.

“No matter how clean the new one is, what you have to do is get rid of the old one,” Kirk Smith, director of the global health and environment program at the University of California, Berkeley, told Devex in an interview earlier this year. “You can think of business models for selling people new things, but it’s very hard to design a business model for getting rid of the bad.”

Handa, the UNC researcher, said he thinks the main barriers to biomass gasification technology moving forward are not so much technological, but operational concerns such as delivery and service, and the ongoing challenge of adoption. That can be solved through economics, making biomass cheaper than charcoal, which is what Inyenyeri is trying to do, he said. While donors want to see scaled-up LPG and eventually grid-based clean cooking, biomass cookstoves are a necessary part of the short-term solution — and Handa agreed with Reynolds that they need to be the best short-term solution possible.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.

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