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Cookstove effort secures $4 million in financing

A Vashon company that has designed a cookstove that could stem smoke inhalation and deforestation in East Africa has received $4 million in financing — funds that will enable it to launch a far-reaching manufacturing project in Kenya.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in her farewell address at the State Department last week, announced the financing agreement — a $3 million loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC), a federal development finance institution, and $1 million in financing from GE — to finance Burn Manufacturing Co.’s cookstove project.

The company, which works out of warehouse space at the Sheffield Building, hopes to manufacture and sell 3.5 million cookstoves for use in East Africa by 2020.

Peter Scott, a Vashon resident and president of the manufacturing company, was in the nation’s capital for Clinton’s speech, sitting in the front row of the Benjamin Franklin Room as the outgoing secretary of state discussed the need for cleaner cookstoves in the developing world and announced the funding package.

“It was an amazing moment for the cookstove movement. ... My team has worked so hard, worked for free for two years to make this happen. This is huge,” he said in an interview from Washington, D.C.

The funds are still not enough to bring the project completely to fruition, he said. All told, Burn needs $5 million in financing.

“We’re still looking for that extra million in equity, but we can get started,” Scott said. “It means we can make stoves.”

Bob Powell, an islander who has worked as a volunteer for Burn Design Lab, the nonprofit arm of the venture, said he, too, was deeply encouraged by the announcement.

“It’s a wonderful vote of confidence in the organization that Peter has built here on Vashon, to go from an idea a little over two years ago to being — at least on paper — a top-tier contributor to stove development in the world,” he said.

“It’s been a miracle,” he added of the effort. “Now, the hard part really begins.”

Inefficient cookstoves are considered both a humanitarian and environmental crisis in some parts of the world, where airborne particulates are harming and even killing women and children and where trees are logged at a rapid clip to fuel open-pit fires or poor-quality, fast-burning stoves. According to some organizations, 1.6 million women and children die each year from upper respiratory disease due to indoor cooking smoke. And deforestation in many of these countries is rampant.

In fact, Clinton made clean cookstoves a top priority during her tenure at the State Department; she launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves and noted in speeches that more people die from dirty smoke than from malaria.

In her speech last week where she announced the partnership with BURN, she joked about her obsession with cookstove technology: “When I first started beating the drums on this alliance, there were people who said, ‘There she goes again. Clean cookstoves? What does that have to do with world peace and prosperity and human rights and democracy and freedom?’ Well, everything actually.”

Scott, a leader in the clean cookstove movement, and his wife Olivia Pendergast moved to Vashon nearly three years ago and launched an effort to both design and ultimately manufacture a stove that he hoped could alter the face of East Africa, a region particularly hard-hit by fast-burning charcoal stoves.

Over the years, his project has been embraced by the island; several people have volunteered countless hours to support the effort, and others have come from engineering schools around the country to work for free or for a small stipend. Scott, himself, has worked without a paycheck and has spent all of his savings to get to this point, he said, and the project was teetering on the edge financially.

The financing package, he said, “is the difference between life and death for Burn. We’d completely run out of money.”

Personally, it’s also important, he added. “I’m really excited to not have to go to the food bank anymore.”

Burn Manufacturing Co. is a privately held corporation that was set up with help by Ted Clabaugh, a lawyer on Vashon and the company’s secretary. Scott is the president; another stalwart at Burn, Boston Nyer, is the vice president. The design lab, based at Sheffield, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

It is there that a group of engineers has worked for months trying to perfect a charcoal-burning stove that could dramatically improve efficiency, produce far less carbon monoxide, cost little to make and perform well for the women who do the lion’s share of the cooking in Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda and elsewhere in East Africa.

Last August, Scott and others at the design lab said they had designed and fabricated what they considered the perfect charcoal-burning stove, dubbing it The Tank. They’ve already manufactured 500 of them and sent them to Kenya, where they’ve been well-received, Powell said.

With the financing in hand, they can now scale up and produce tens of thousands of Tanks, a stove they’ve renamed the jikOkoa, Scott said. (“Jik” means stove and “okoa” means efficient.) “Initially, they’ll fabricate the parts in China and assemble the stoves in Kenya — a necessary move, Scott said, “to get the stoves to market right away.” Ultimately, and with additional financing, the team plans to set up a manufacturing plant in Kenya.

The decision to begin manufacturing the stoves in China “is an intermediate step on the path towards a factory in Kenya,” Powell said. What’s more, he said, building a factory in Kenya will likely be fraught with challenges. “So having intermediate components made in China ... is part of a learning experience to mitigate the risks,” Powell said.

Scott expects Burn’s stove production will lead to 200 jobs in East Africa. But he’ll also employ a dozen or so people on Vashon, where he and his colleagues will continue their quest to find other kinds of stoves that can work in other parts of the world.

Noting the location of the Sheffield building, Scott added, “There’s going to be an explosion of creativity at 188th and 103rd.”

 

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