20081227-the-goals7The Acumen Fund blog this week posted a call for solutions to the energy challenges posed by wood-burning stoves responsible for much of the black carbon causing 18 percent of global warming, according to the New York Times. Much of the third world uses wood as fuel because it is widely available and free, but the stoves they use to burn the wood are inefficient and produce large amounts of smoke and soot, causing major health and pollution problems.

Acumen Fund’s main criticisms of alternative stoves like rocket stoves and solar cookers are as follows:

There are lots of stove technologies…out there that can do the job better and use cleaner fuels, but the capital costs are higher and the distribution models are complex. Incentives from the carbon markets…have not provided enough benefit to drive the adoption of clean cooking products…getting certified through the Kyoto Protocol is a long and complicated process, a real barrier for start-ups interested in attacking the stove problem.

20090501_great-darfur-smoke-outCould the Berkeley Darfur Stove be a solution?

  • They certainly are not the cheapest solution, placing the stove at $20 on a stove comparison chart that cites their main competition – stoves made of three stones or mud/dung over burning wood – as $1, and the only two more expensive – solar cookers and the Saves 80 Stove – as $20-57. They claim that the cost is offset by a savings of $240/year due to a 75 percent reduction in wood consumption with this stove.
  • The stove design is indeed well-thought out, citing a wind collar to protect against Darfur’s windy environment, a variety of cooking surfaces for various types of Darfuri cuisine, and a small firebox opening to discourage over-feeding the fire with excess wood.
  • But they may have the edge when it comes to distribution model. By manufacturing the parts in India then flat-packing them for shipping to Sudan for assembly (a la Ikea), the Darfur Stoves project has been able to increase production seven-fold, to 100 stoves per day.

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20081227-the-goals4MIT senior lecturer Amy Smith’s TED talk begins with the best thing a design presentation can share: failures along the path to successful solutions.

Smith wanted to design a locally producible fuel that would eliminate Haitian preference for wood-based fires. Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, is 97% deforested but families continue to rely on wood fires in the home for cooking. Smith saw that these families would eventually have to buy imported fuels, which would likely be unaffordable. In addition, wood-burning produces smoke inhalation in the home, which Smith discovered is the #1 cause of death among children under five years old in the developing world.

She reveals that the first version of locally producible charcoal briquettes did not actually burn, nor were they produced from locally available materials!

When you compare her 2006 TED talk to the 2004 DIY charcoal production manual, it’s clear that Smith has also learned to change how she presents the problem she solves. Rather than focus on the environmental issue (deforestation), which local families don’t have the luxury to consider, she opens her talk with the impact on childhood mortality – a much more compelling reason to switch to her fuel.

This is a great example of design-for-DIY: rather than create an invention that you intend to manufacture then sell to the developing world, create a way to teach the local communities to make and possibly sell the solution themselves. Design-for-DIY solves two needs: the original problem, and the economic challenge. Smith’s instruction manual is written such that anybody with access to agricultural waste and an empty oil drum can become an entrepreneur, producing and selling home-safe charcoal to the local community.

Imagine how powerful this could be if someone from the MIT Sloan School of Management teamed up with her?