Designing for the Developing World: How Corn Can Make or Break a Cookstove Project

October 22, 2012 at 1:17 pm Leave a comment

By Amanda West, co-founder of EcoZoom

Since man discovered fire people have been cooking on open fires. For half the world’s population this practice continues today. My company, EcoZoom, seeks to change this behavior. But it isn’t easy.

Cooking over an open fire – an act that kills 1.9 million people every year and is similar to smoking 2-3 packs of cigarettes a day – is ingrained into the cultures of many. Although it is uncomfortable, dangerous and deadly, it makes the food taste like grandma’s cooking, it’s reliable, it’s readily available and it’s the tradition.

Designing with cooks in developing countries is essential for making products, training materials and marketing campaigns that are useful and accepted. This is a story of creating user uptake for EcoZoom cookstoves in rural Rwanda.

The Project
EcoZoom cookstoves are being used in a large-scale project in Rwanda. Over the summer the distributor, DelAgua Health & Development (which has ties to PSU professor Evan Thomas, director of SWEETLab), conducted a 100-stove pilot.

The Product
Rural Rwanda primarily uses wood for cooking so the Zoom Dura cookstove was the best fit. Before the pilot we learned that people in Rwanda use bigger pots than other places in Africa so our typical 26cm stovetop wouldn’t be big enough. Ok, easy fix. We put a 32cm top on the Zoom Dura and modified the handles to accommodate. Now we needed to get the stove into the hands of cooks to see what else had to change for wide-scale adoption.

The extensive follow up during and after the pilot distribution revealed some small opportunities to improve durability. Mainly screws. If a screw loosens in rural Rwanda most end users don’t have a screwdriver to tighten it or are afraid to tighten it because they don’t want to harm their new stove. Again, easy fix. All new stoves use rivets instead of screws.

Besides the screws the product was a hit. We suspected it would be because we’ve already made lots of product modifications based on feedback from other countries in Africa and have a history of high user acceptance. But entering a new market can be challenging and its unique characteristics have to be taken into consideration.

The Training
Once the stove is ready for the market, we have found that most gains to user uptake can be realized through user training. If you just drop a stove off at someone’s house with no explanation of how to use it then you can’t expect high and/or sustained uptake rates. (Sounds obvious, right?)

Before distributing the stoves I worked with native Rwandans on the DelAgua staff to modify our stove training images and materials. We tweaked graphics and added new ones until we all felt like we had a comprehensive training presentation and poster that could be understood by everyone regardless of their literacy level.

The training presentation was for Community Health Workers (CHWs) – government-affiliated residents in the villages where we’d be distributing stoves. The CHWs personally visit each house to provide one-on-one training on how to use the stove.

The poster was made to hang in the cooks’ house. Besides being easy to understand, the poster ended up being popular for its colors. Cooks felt a sense of pride in the poster and wanted to hang it prominently in the main room for all to see. While printing a larger poster in color costs more, it was worth it in the long run since cooks (and their friends) will look at it often and be reminded of proper stove use.

The Corn

The washing station family using a traditional three-stone fire

The base of distribution for the pilot was a coffee washing station. Apparently, it was well known and strategically located, which made it ideal as a distribution site. During the distribution the owner and his wife received a stove. They took it out of the box and started cooking beans on it immediately. Both of them were elated to have the new stove and thanked me profusely for bringing it. So, I walked away happy and kept helping with the distribution.

About an hour later Emmanuel (the owner) came up to me and said there was a problem with the stove. I went to investigate. He said that it was great because cooking beans on the open fire used to take two hours and they did it on the EcoZoom stove in 45 minutes. But they don’t know how to roast corn on the new stove. He was wondering if they should just keep using the three-stone fire for that cooking task.

I have to admit it I was stumped. No one has ever asked how to roast corn on the stove. I didn’t even realize that roasted corn was a traditional food in Rwanda. Was it possible to roast corn on the stove?

The washing station family with their new EcoZoom stove

Emmanuel and I spent the next 20 minutes strategizing about how to roast corn on the stove. Turns out it’s easy. All you have to do is put the stove on low power (i.e., one stick) and lay the corn over the stovetop. Roasting this way takes the corn from being in a vertical orientation, like on the three-stone fire, to a horizontal orientation. We both thought it was a simple change and we wondered if other people would know what to do. But no need to wonder with proper instructions!

We revised the training presentation and poster so it would be more comprehensive. They now include information on cooking corn, using clay pots and other lessons learned during the pilot, which will definitely increase user uptake for future stoves placed.

New EcoZoom Benefits
It’s well known that to sell a product you need to market its benefits to potential customers. The same goes for cookstoves. Many of our partners gather feedback about EcoZoom stoves. For example, cooks like that the stove cooks fast, saves fuel, emits less smoke, and that it looks modern. Others say it is easy to light because the wind is blocked or that the pots stay cleaner so they don’t have to spend as much time cleaning. In Rwanda, we learned about some unexpected benefits that speak to cooks on a more emotional level.

1. Husbands will not be ashamed to cook now because the EcoZoom stove is sophisticated, unlike a three-stone fire.

2. Husbands will want to be around their wives more now because she will not be covered in ashes like when she cooks on the three-stone fire.

So, surprise…the EcoZoom stove is also an aphrodisiac. Husbands will help with the cooking (which we all know is sexy) and wives won’t be covered in ash.

We are learning about new benefits all the time and how our stoves impact daily life beyond the obvious. I wonder if it will be the same in the next market we enter.

To Sum it Up
Initial field results of the 100-stove pilot were great. Almost all (86%) of the cooks completely stopped using the three-stone fire and use the EcoZoom stove exclusively. The remaining users cook on the EcoZoom stove 50% of the time and the three-stone fire 50% of the time. With the improved user training and posters being used in future distributions, we know we will improve beyond 86% and get that much closer to 100%. This experience was truly a great lesson in the importance of working WITH your customers to create the best results!

This post was updated to include the name of the PSU SWEET Lab Director, Evan Thomas. 

Entry filed under: SII Member News, Social Entrepreneurship. Tags: , , , .

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