By Nicholas Bobadilla
When it comes to public health, changing behavior sometimes requires coming up with creative incentives. That’s what 2014 Big Ideas Winners Jacqueline Nguyen and Mark Webb had in mind when designing their clean-burning stove, KleanCook, for populations in the developing world. The stove reduces smoke and uses less wood—meaning healthier lungs for its users, less deforestation, and lower greenhouse gas emissions. But the market for health comes with a unique set of challenges.
“It’s difficult to make an argument for latent health exposure, especially for a disease that may arise 20-30 years down the road,” said Webb. The solution was in the stove’s ability to power a phone and, if needed, the user’s home. It’s often expensive in the developing world to do either. “You can’t sell health, but you can sell electricity,” said Webb. “The utility of charging the phone is the most sought after utility for the consumer. That’s why people buy the stove. For us, it’s a means to an end. It’s a way to create demand for a stove that improves health.”
The KleanCook stove is powered by a thermo-electric generator that works by moving heat between two regions. Heating one region and cooling the other generates a heat flow, which creates a charge separation in the thermoelectric material. This produces the electricity that powers the stove. Under optimal conditions, a typical thermo-electric generator produces about 8 watts of power. KleanCook generates up to 15, a number that far surpassed the team’s expectations.
The idea began when Webb wanted to create a stove that could provide a hot shower for campers who could only bathe with cold water in the wilderness. Fascinated by the idea, Nguyen teamed up with Webb, and the pair began collaborating on the first model of the “Power Shower.” It wasn’t until Nguyen’s mother suggested the device’s potential in the Philippines that the pair considered its benefits to the developing world. Around the same time, Nguyen discovered Big Ideas, which provided the incentive and support to transform the Power Shower into the first generation of KleanCook.
The team has come a long way since then. After winning the Energy and Resources category of Big Ideas in 2014, Webb and Nguyen distributed ten models of KleanCook in the Philippines. The pilot was successful, but it came with many logistical and technical hurdles. “KleanCook 1.0 worked very well but we learned a lot from it. It produced too much power and was over-engineered because we were in a rush for the pilot study. We learned in the Philippines that as much as you plan for something, there are certain cases you can’t account for,” said Webb.
Webb and Nguyen are working closely with Dr. Amod Pokhrel, a project scientist in the School of Public Health, as well as Professor David Levine of the Haas School of Business to deploy 250 units of their KleanCook stove in Nepal this Spring. They made this decision after Lakpa Sherpa, a Nepali undergraduate researcher, inquired about including the stove in his research on improving health outcomes in his home country.
After collaborating with Lakpa and his mentors, Drs. Pokhrel and Levine, the team aimed to deploy the stoves in Spring 2015. However, they were forced to rethink their strategy after an earthquake devastated Nepal last April. “It [the earthquake] redirected our focus from doing a study to providing relief for victims. People really needed the stoves because they didn’t have power,” Webb said. “The goal wasn’t to sell anymore. It was to find families that really needed it.”
Logistical hurdles, which included delivering the stove to affected areas and circumventing the Indian embargo placed on Nepal in August created more complications and stalled the project, but Webb and Nguyen used the extra time to improve KleanCook’s design.
KleanCook is now back on track and will be shipped in the coming weeks. Once the components arrive, Webb will travel to Nepal to train three engineers on how to use and assemble the stove. These experts will become the managers of the operation. From there, Professor Levine will use survey data to determine the balance between the health benefit and the amount people can pay for the stove. Professor Amod and Lakpa will market and distribute the stove at prices that vary based on income brackets, but guarantee they will break even on aggregate.
Looking beyond Nepal, Webb and Nguyen are optimistic but pragmatic about the market for KleanCook, which they believe exists primarily in the developing world. “This kind of product is only desired in a meaningful way in developing countries. That’s the only viable market where there’s need and demand for it,” said Webb.
Webb hopes the stove will catch the eye of institutional investors who can make large scale purchases and turn to the stove as a first choice for distribution among vulnerable populations: “I see the stove long term as being a staple investment of institutional buyers. Once we build its credibility through these initial rollouts, we can approach institutional investors. The goal is to get it to a place where they see it as a go-to thing.”