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Cookstove effort takes off with new factory

Peter Scott, president of Burn, stands in the company’s design lab at the Sheffield Building. Behind him Burn employees and interns test cookstove prototypes. - Natalie Martin/Staff Photo
Peter Scott, president of Burn, stands in the company’s design lab at the Sheffield Building. Behind him Burn employees and interns test cookstove prototypes.
— image credit: Natalie Martin/Staff Photo

By NATALIE MARTIN

At a large factory in Nairobi, Kenya, about 300 Kenyans will soon begin building small, black cookstoves that one islander hopes will alter the face of Africa.

“It’s game changing,” said Peter Scott, a Vashon resident and the president of Burn Manufacturing Co.

For Scott, who returned to the island last week after spending four months in Kenya, the factory’s opening earlier this month was a watershed moment. It means that Kenyans will soon begin mass producing a stove that was designed on Vashon and that will combat what many consider a global crisis — the growing number of deaths and rapid deforestation resulting from the inefficient charcoal-burning cookstoves used in many African homes.

About 2 million people, mostly women and children, die each year from upper respiratory disease due to indoor cooking smoke. What’s more, East Africa is facing an ecological crisis from all that charcoal: It takes seven tons of wood to make one ton of charcoal, leading to rapid deforestation and a lack of sustainability that will create more crises down the road.

It’s an issue that Scott and a team of engineers and activists he jokingly calls his “stove army” have been working to address for about three years now. Last year, Burn Manufacturing, a privately held company, released its first clean-burning cookstove. Called the Jikokoa, or “saving stove” in Swahili, it’s the most efficient cookstove on the market, consuming 50 percent less charcoal than the next best option.

Standing in Burn’s small design lab at the Sheffield Building last week, Scott explained how Africa’s population is growing at a rapid pace, intensifying the urgency to get clean-burning stoves into homes. By 2030, nearly 1 billion people will rely on biomass — charcoal, wood and dung — for cooking and heating.

“If the population is going to double in Africa, we’ve got to get people using this stove that burns half as much fuel just to keep ahead,” he said.

The Jikokoa is now available at all major department stores in Kenya, and Burn has sold about 11,000 so far. At $40 a stove, it’s an easy sell, Scott noted. Families in East Africa spend a huge amount — $300 to $700 a year — on charcoal or other fuel for cooking.

“To save $350 a year is enormous,” Scott said. “It basically pays for the stove in a month.”

But to meet his goal of selling 3.5 million stoves for use in East Africa in the next decade, Scott says he knew Burn needed to up its efforts.

Currently parts for the Jikokoa are manufactured in China and shipped to Nairobi, where about 50 Kenyans employed by Burn assemble the stoves for sale. The method works, Scott says, but is not sustainable, as the costs involved in ordering and shipping the parts make it impossible to turn a profit on the small stoves.

Beginning in June, however, when Burn’s Nairobi factory is fully operational, Jikokoas and eventually other stove models will be built from start to finish in Kenya. The operation will also provide 300 badly needed jobs in Kenya’s capital, with half of them going to women.

“It’s helping to develop Kenya,” Scott said.

Burn’s new factory was made possible in part by $1 million in financing from General Electric and a $3 million loan from the Overseas Private Investment Corp. (OPIC), a federal development finance institution. Hillary Clinton secured the funding during her time at the State Department, when she made clean cookstoves a national priority and launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, vowing to invest $50 million in clean-burning stoves.

So far, Scott said, OPIC has lent funding only to Burn.

“People have put so much work and energy into this, they want to see it succeed,” he said.

The new manufacturing plant is also the realization of a dream Scott first imagined decades ago.

As a student at the University of British Columbia active in anti-apartheid efforts, Scott found himself in the Congo and saw the rampant deforestation that was taking place there. He wept at what he saw, he recalls, and vowed to commit his life to doing what he could to end it.

Scott designed his first stove in 1999 for Hondurans, setting off a globe-trotting journey that would earn him acclaim as a humanitarian and a global leader in the clean cookstove movement. Charismatic and sporting curly hair cropped below his ears, Scott, 45, has been dubbed the Mic Jagger — and more recently the pope — of the cookstove world.

“It’s a step up or down, depending on your religious affiliation,” he said with a grin.

Scott’s journey most recently brought him to Vashon, which he and his wife, artist Olivia Pendergast, thought would be a good place to raise a family and relax between Scott’s overseas stints. Within months of their 2010 move, however, Scott managed to gather around him a group of Vashon engineers, designers and other professionals who were inspired by his vision and eager to donate their time to make it happen.

“There’s nowhere else in the world I could have done this,” Scott said, reflecting on Burn’s early days. “If I had gone to Seattle or something I would have had to have raised millions of dollars to hire these people.”

As Scott recently spent long stretches in Kenya working toward the factory opening, Burn Design Lab, now a registered nonprofit that employs 15 people, ran smoothly without him. In a corner of the cavernous warehouse portion of the Sheffield Building, island engineers and interns from around the country now work to develop the next generation of Burn stoves: a commercial stove that will be used in restaurants and by street vendors; a more affordable stove that will sell for $10 less in stores; a stove that will burn not charcoal but wood, a fuel used in more rural parts of Kenya, and even a stove with a fan that will run off of a small solar panel and that Africans can pay for in installments.

“We’ve got a whole team of people working every angle, every possible way to get stoves to more people,” said Lou Fezio, Burn’s chief technical officer.

Last summer Fezio, an engineer, left his job of 30 years designing K2 skis to work full time at Burn.

“It’s crazy, it’s maddening; sometimes it’s an enormous amount of work. But you can just watch it happen,” Fezio said of Burn’s growth since it was founded three years ago. “I think we’re going to keep growing,” he said.

Fezio recently spent time in Kenya helping to set up the new factory, a process he said was fraught with barriers due to the county’s lack of infrastructure.

“Manufacturing in a developing country is a huge challenge,” agreed Paul Means, a research and testing manager at Burn. “You can’t go out and buy things like you can in the U.S. or order something from Amazon and have it show up the next day.”

Only through Scott’s single-minded determination, both men say, did the new factory ultimately open in a former warehouse. A ribbon cutting ceremony was held on March 3.

“The conditions are really extreme, and he pulled it off in a visionary way, with some smart people around him,” said Ward Serrill, an award-winning filmmaker who was also taken by Scott’s determination a couple years ago. Serrill has been following Scott on and off since, producing a documentary on Burn’s efforts titled “Catching Fire: Peter Scott’s Stove Army.”

Ward and his wife and film partner Sophie Mortimer met Scott while living on Vashon and decided to feature Burn in a documentary they were working on about trees. However, they quickly decided Burn’s work deserved a closer look, and have now shot more than 50 hours of film both on Vashon and in Africa, working to produce a documentary that will likely be shown on KCTS and other similar stations.

A 25-minute preview of the documentary will be shown next month next door to Burn, at the Open Space for Arts & Community.

“This is a little local story that has global impacts that we don’t know about here,” Ward said last week. “I think it’s a really big, cool story because of the odds against him. ... I call it a chase-the-wild animal documentary because I don’t know how it’s going to end.”

With Burn’s Kenya factory not yet fully operational, Scott is already doing what he’s become known for — dreaming ahead. Within months, he expects the company will release the world’s most efficient wood-burning stove, which is currently being designed with funding from the Department of Energy and a partnership with the University of Washington. And he’s already planning Burn’s next cookstove factory, hoping to open what he calls “the greenest manufacturing facility in the world” within a few years. Looking beyond that, he notes inefficient cookstoves are used around the world, and the crisis is global.

“I’ll die feeling like there’s still a lot more to do,” he said.

See the documentary

A 25-minute preview of the documentary “Catching Fire: Peter Scott’s Stove Army   ” will be shown at 7 p.m. Friday, April 18, at the Open Space. A Q&A with the filmmakers and Peter Scott will follow.

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