Eight years ago, a standing-room-only crowd of islanders attended a meeting at Courthouse Square to hear a Canadian transplant new to Vashon talk about designing better cookstoves for the developing world.
The speaker that night, Peter Scott, had a mission: to develop a design lab on Vashon that would act as a research center for stove development and to manufacture the best stoves in the world. His motivation was the rampant deforestation occuring in Africa and forests being cut down for fuel.
By many measures, Scott has been successful at what he set out to do, although his path forward took some different turns than the vision he laid out that night not quite a decade ago. Scott is now the CEO of Burn Manufacturing, based in Kenya. With 220 employees, it produces 20,000 stoves a month and has sold more than 400,000. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Burn Design Lab, which Scott founded in 2010, continues to partner with Burn Manufacturing to improve stoves for sub-Saharan Africa. The design lab, now headed by Paul Means, also partners with organizations around the globe, from Ghana to the Philippines, to create stoves that are — according to the nonprofit’s website — “efficient, durable, culturally appropriate cook stoves — that all can afford.”
Scott, his wife Olivia Pendergast and their young daughter live in Kenya now, and last week were back on Vashon for a visit. At the Burn Design Lab conference table at the Sheffield Building, both Scott and Means talked about where both Burn enterprises have come from and where they are going. And as he has before, Scott credited the community of Vashon for his successes.
“There was a real groundswell of excitement and support from Vashon,” he said, recalling that first meeting on Vashon. “It was almost like Vashon was waiting to be awoken to do something of this level. … It really could not have been done anywhere else in the world. Vashon was the only place. So many people came forward to support the idea. And little did anyone know what a long road it was going to be to create this thing,” he added with a laugh.
In 2011, General Electric and OPIC, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, promised Scott a $4 million investment, but the money was long in coming. Between then and 2013, the Burn team came together, with the focus on building the world’s most efficient charcoal stove. During that time, he said, those involved spent thousands of hours designing a stove and sending prototypes to be tested in Kenya.
“We had no money, and we were all going to the food bank,” he recalled. “We were completely broke. I had spent all my life savings. We were just on the edge for a very long time.”
The first installment of OPIC money came in August of 2013 and allowed Burn to begin assembling stoves in Kenya. Scott said that $750,000 made them feel they were rich, but it lasted only three months. In fact, he said, until March of this year, they questioned how they would make payroll each month. Now, he believes they have turned a corner, but he added it is difficult to raise money to expand, and they want to do so to address the large need for better stoves. In sub-Saharan Africa alone, he said 10 million charcoal stoves a year are needed — far from the number Burn Manufacturing is producing now.
“We are just scratching the surface of what is needed,” he said.
Sub-Saharan Africa is facing an ecological and economic crisis, he added. There, $15 billion a year is spent on charcoal for cooking and about 30 million tons per year are used. Inefficient cook stoves and cooking methods continue to contribute to the destruction of forests and to respiratory ailments, particularly for women, who do the majority of cooking. By 2030, charcoal consumption is expected to increase to 45 millions tons per year — and Burn Manufacturing would like to cut that number in half.
Burn Manufacturing’s two stoves are the Jikokoa, a charcoal stove that, according to the company’s website, uses 50 percent less charcoal and cooks 50 percent quicker than competing stoves, and the wood-burning Kuniokoa, launched just last year.
The two stoves will figure into the company’s future, along with new stoves that will burn alternative, sustainable fuels, including briquettes made from sugar cane waste and charcoal made from invasive species. Additionally, both Scott and Means say they will work on adding a fan to the Kuniokoa, which would make its emissions cleaner than they are currently.
“It will be a more modern cooking experience, and the premise is that more people will want to buy it,” Scott said.
These future plans will require more people, and Scott extended an invitation to islanders to work for him in Kenya.
“Vashon is still our home, and if people here want to have an adventure and go save the world, they are welcome to join us,” he said, noting that the open positions are listed on the company’s website.
Meanwhile, the history of Burn Design Lab is closely tied to Scott, who stepped down as CEO two years ago to focus on the manufacturing business. While there is considerable collaboration between the two businesses, the design lab partners with groups around the world, not just Burn Manufacturing, to create cleaner cookstoves.
“We believe that all people, no matter where they live, should be able to cook their meals without harm to themselves, their families or their environment,” Burn Design Lab CEO Means said.
He shared the nonprofit’s PowerPoint presentation, which included a slide of a hydraulic jack — seemingly out of place among images from the developing world. But the symbolism is relevant to the work of the lab, Means said. By leveraging research, design and development of cookstove technology, Burn Design Lab can have far-reaching positive effects — on deforestation, water quality, the lives of women and children and climate change.
Currently, one of the lab’s projects is in Ghana, with a group of women who make shea butter from roasted shea nuts, while another project is a better wood-burning stove for a group in Guatemala. Looking ahead, the lab hopes to design the charcoal stove to last 30 percent longer than it does currently and develop a ceramic stove in Uganda.
Regardless of where Burn Design Lab works, Means said its partnership model is the same.
“We bring the expertise; they bring the customs and needs and local manufacturing. Our model is always to be in partnership with an organization in a country to stay on track, so we do not dream up something that will not fit the culture or the needs of the people,” he said.
The design lab currently does its work with six staff members, three of whom have engineering degrees. Two are interns and one is a part-time administrative employee, Means said. This summer one, possibly two, new staff will be hired. The annual budget is $250,000, raised through grants and private donations.
Means noted that it is funding that constrains the work of the lab’s work, and, like Burn Manufacturing, the design lab hopes to grow and would like to triple in size within the next two years.
While the funding may be a challenge, the work is challenging too, and it has drawn many people in. In fact, at different times both Means and Scott shared nearly the exact same sentence: “We have been lucky that we have had brilliant people want to come work for us for nickels.”
Means noted the challenge and opportunities are both large.
“People ask, ‘How hard is it to make a cookstove.’ I say it is more difficult than rocket science.”
Stoves must be efficient even with fuel of varying quality, easy to produce and use, and affordable for some of the poorest people in the world.
The challenge is exciting, he added, the kind of project he and others at the design lab like to take on.
Scott shared a similar sentiment, while Pendergast came and joined in the conversation, saying Scott is just getting started with this work. He agreed.
“It’s a lifetime. It’s such a great, fun opportunity because you get to design, think, grow and change people’s lives,” he said. “It’s been an amazing whirlwind.”