How a social enterprise is changing fuel-efficient cooking stove technology in India

A village street vendor’s food may be mouthwatering and easy on the wallet, but it’s very likely that it’s cooked over a stove with fuels such as firewood. The problem? These stoves are out-dated, inefficient and manufactured without stringent quality or safety standards. Most dangerous, these stoves release toxic fumes that harm both people and the environment. It is estimated that small vendors operate nearly 330 days a year, for 10-12 hours a day, consuming up to 250 kg of firewood daily. UNDP and WHO estimate indoor air pollution from traditional fuels accounts for about 1.6 million deaths annually in developing countries. And more than a quarter of those deaths occur in India alone. One Indian woman has a solution.

Fuel-efficient cooking stove – the product and operational model

Svati Bhogle heads the Technology Informatics Design Endeavour (TIDE), which has designed an environment-friendly, fuel-efficient, smokeless stove for the rural and semi-urban street vendors and consumers. Bhogle is also the Founder and Managing Director of Sustaintech, a social enterprise that is adopting a market driven approach to sell these TIDE-developed sustainable stoves. In effectively addressing a dire social problem,Bhogle was elected an Ashoka Fellow.

“My initial interest was purely a technology challenge” says Bhogle. “There were numerous complex scientific issues in wood burning and cookstove designing, and the opportunity for learning was too great to be missed. But later as we started going to villages, and talking to women and understanding their problems, I found the societal aspect of the challenge to be much more compelling. So in pursuit of large scale impact, I my interest gradually transitioned from science to society to scaling up.”

The fuel-efficient stove has an attached chimney that vents the toxic fumes away, making it not only smokeless but free from burn injuries,. The stove achieves higher combustion efficiency through an optimized air-fuel ratio, optimal combustion chamber volume, and a technically designed efficient chimney. The stove achieves better heat transfer efficiency with high quality insulation, maximizing the surface area exposed to heat and minimizing the wall losses.

Sustaintech estimates that street vendors in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu spend as much as INR 30,000 ($500) annually on firewood for the stove when the monthly takeaway income is a meagre  INR 7000 ($117). The sustainable stove results in substantial savings of as much as 40% in fuel costs.. In fact Sustaintech estimates that the savings even enable vendors to repay loans in 15 months.

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TIDE and Sustaintech’s fuel-efficient sustainable cooking stove (source)

The product’s differentiation does not end at its technical design, but further reflects in its manufacturing, distribution and partnership model. Sustaintech seeks to address the unorganised manufacturing space by ensuring strict quality controls during manufacturing and assembly. Sustaintech also works with local entrepreneurs for these services,. Sustaintech especially focuses on distribution and outreach, and while the product offering is essentially a technology solution, Bhogle’s initiative also provides financial incentives:

  • No down payment
  • Repayment every month
  • Product warranties and maintenance contracts

This financial model reduces the burden of buying the stove outright and maximises fuel savings, which according to Bhogle amount toINR 20,000– 30,000. Additionally, Sustaintech has found that vendors learn about the basics of banking and savings. Repayments also establish their credibility and enable them to further borrow and access traditional finance in order to set up and expand a sustainable business. Sustaintech also specifically focuseson women-focused cooperative groups. According to Bhogle, Sustainech has trained 5,000 women since 2001, and 10 villages have been converted to smokeless villages through their work.

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Sustaintech’s fuel-efficient sustainable cooking stove (source)

The product is also versatile. Stoves come in different capacity sizes and ranges that allow preparation of different foods, and can use a variety of fuel types such as agro waste, firewood, charcoal and biofuels such as ground nut husk. The products are used by street vendors in tea shops and snack shops as well as in the larger kitchens of hostels and schools. To address the scepticism around the life and utility of the stoves, Sustaintech initially set up, and still does, demonstration units for prospective buyers and partners which also helps promotion by word of mouth..

“One of the key challenges that Sustaintech faces is getting consumer lending organizations to back its customers,” Bhogle explains “If access to consumer finance for stove users is not enabled or if the procedures of banks are incompatible with the needs of our customers, our customers are not considered quite bankable, and this makes us feel helpless and disappointed. This is not just about the growth of Sustaintech but also about the profitability and benefits to thousands of potential users.”

Till date, Sustaintech has sold 3,200 stoves across 400 towns in India, and is growing its geographical reach and expanding via a distributor model. It expects to sell 11,275 stoves in the next 5 years, ,nNearly 9,000 vendors will be provided a safe and healthy environment and an estimated 290,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions will be abated.

“Constantly learning from others and improving my approach to problem solving keeps me going,” Bhogle says. “I like to think about how positive change can be enabled through each situation at work.”

 

Naman is a volunteer at Ashoka India. This piece (abridged version) about Sustaintech was first published on Civil SocietyLink