Innovation in cookstove technology must reflect Lao culture for a chance of success
Lao people don’t care about reducing carbon emissions from their traditional cookstoves, nor do they really care about the long-term negative health effects these stoves create. What they do care about is the operating cost. This is in fact a convenient truth, but if only SNV, a Dutch NGO, had realised it sooner.
‘Improved Cookstoves’ for sale, shown with official blue stickers
SNV’s main focus in Laos is cookstove technology. Typical Lao cookstoves are made of clay and function like a barbeque, burning wood or other biomatter to heat a single pan; SNV is promoting ‘Improved Cookstoves’ which burn much less fuel than incumbent technology thanks to their superior construction materials and design. They also burn fuel more completely, meaning the exhaust contains fewer toxic by-products. The reduction in quantity of exhaust, and the reduction of its toxicity, mean that those who cook indoors, as does most of the population, are far less likely to suffer from respiratory disease caused by breathing in exhaust products. Burning less fuel also means a reduction in a carbon emissions.
SNV played a part in designing the Improved Cookstove, but this was a relatively easy task in comparison to the difficulty of persuading Lao people to abandon the inefficient, cheap stoves they are used to and upgrade to the Improved Cookstove. To achieve this, SNV’s primary aim in Laos is now to “set up markets”, according to Bastiaan Teune, Head of Sustainability in Asia. SNV’s strategy for setting up a cookstove market is as light-touch as they can make it: they introduce a minimum standard of cookstove quality that manufacturers are tested for. If a manufacturer passes, their products are allowed to display a large, blue, official-looking sticker and they receive significant support from SNV, including help with marketing and business planning. This should result in more sales of high-quality stoves across Laos.
Traditionally, Lao marketplaces are anti-innovation. Sellers are afraid to change their ways as they can’t afford the risk of failure – this is dramatically apparent in the conformity of a typical food market, where each stand is identical to its neighbours. The large, blue, official-looking stickers for the Improved Cookstoves represent ‘safe’ innovation: manufacturers willing to take the risk of upping their standards can feel secure in the knowledge that they are joining a successful ‘club’.
SNV’s difficulties result from its tricky positon between aid donors, Lao manufacturers and Lao consumers. The mostly European staff at SNV bid for further funding by demonstrating to donors the benefits of their technology: emission reductions, health benefits, fuel savings. This alluring list of benefits ticks the box for the donors, so naturally SNV tried to market the technology in Laos in the same way. But realistically, most Lao people can’t afford to care about the natural environment. They relentlessly fell trees for firewood, regardless of the impacts on local ecology. Attempting to sell Improved Cookstoves based on reducing carbon emissions gained little traction. Instead, SNV had to adapt its cookstove marketing solely to promote the financial savings of using less fuel to achieve the same cooking as with traditional cookstoves.
With the emissions reductions duly dropped from the marketing approach, the next step was to make the Improved Cookstove seem credible in its own right, distinct from a product that a foreign NGO has dictated would be good for Lao people. SNV’s market-creation approach works well here as it shields consumers from interacting with the NGO: consumers buy their stoves from Lao shops that are supplied by Lao manufacturers.
The final step in SNV’s involvement is support of a Lao social business called ARMI (Association for Rural Mobilisation and Improvement) to take up the mantel and manage the Improved Cookstoves programme itself.