Hot Stoves & Fiery Fuel: Designing Change in Kenya

Human health is at stake: How will Payan get Kenya Stoves to the women who most need them? Young World Inventors will tell the video story on our next trip to Kenya.

What’s the Problem?

It’s 8am in Nairobi, Kenya, and Payan ole-MoiYoi has battled traffic jams and smog to make his way to his Kenya Stove shop, where he’s been working since last November, having moved home to Kenya from Oregon. He begins to unlock doors and storage closets, and takes out his tools for another day of tweaking his smokeless stoves. Payan plans to create wholesale change in the cooking tools favored by Kenyan women for decades.

Anyone who’s ever tried to sell something new knows how much the average person resists change, never mind those who can barely afford food. Most buy charcoal as cooking fuel, which is dirty and costly, since they see no easy alternatives.

Maasai family cooking photo: Practical Action

Payan (pie-an) painstakingly examines his fuel and stove performance: he plans to win change through precision and persuasion. The highest cause of death in developing regions is lung disease (more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined), caused mostly by the toxic smoke of cook fires, which expose women and children to the equivalent of 200+ cigarettes/day.

In one corner of his shop Payan has a pile of mathenge wood chips drying, getting to just the right moisture content to burn slow, but not too slow, and fast enough to create a fire that blazes instantly, burning steadily in under three minutes. He weighs the mathenge chips on a baking sheet and kitchen scale before burning, and again afterwards, to see what amount of wood and moisture content will create a fire that lasts long enough to cook an average meal.

Mathenge is a pesky invader brought to Kenya from the Americas to control erosion 40 years ago, but today its roots collect and store precious water, even after a tree is felled. This tree and its thorny branches are also toxic to livestock. Mathenge is called “the devil plant” by some and covers 125,000 acres of Kenya now, doubling its range every five years.

Mathenge logs and thorny shrubs

Payan aims to reduce its coverage and make mathenge the fuel of choice for Kenya Stove, since it burns very hot. At the same time, he’s defending soil and water for native trees.

Payan has been weighing the mathenge chips for a month and half now. Each time he builds a better stove, he tests it for efficiency, in combination with the mathenge biomass. To a visitor, this seems a relentlessly tedious routine.

Payan’s Solution

Payan demonstrates his smokeless woodgas stove, designed for manufacture in Kenya, from locally available materials. The Kenya Stove offers five benefits over traditional stoves: 1) the stove itself costs just one-third of what families spend for the cheapest imported stoves now available;

a typical cookstove and charcoal used by Kenyans

2) it can save families half what they currently spend on charcoal for cooking; 3) it will provide smokeless cooking, reducing lung disease that kills 10 million women per year in developing regions; 4) Kenya Stove can rid the countryside of the invasive mathenge, and 5) subsitutes like mathege for cooking fires saves native wood used to make charcoal, where deforestation is reducing forests to barren hillsides.

Finally, as Payan notes in the video above, “In burning wood to make charcoal, 70% of the wood’s energy is lost.” He adds that ninety percent of the harmful carbon monoxide fumes produced by standard charcoal stoves are eliminated by his stove. Clearly, the stakes are high; for Payan, his goals and mission make the tedium worthwhile.

With a Maasai father and an American mother, Payan was born in the U.S. and moved to Kenya as a toddler, growing up with his family in Kenya’s capital and largest city, Nairobi. As a teenager he studied with the same focus that he applies now to his stoves and wood chips. With ambition and nothing to lose, he applied to Princeton University, won admission, and moved to the U.S. in 1998.

Payan ole-MoiYoi with Kenya Stove prototype

Someone has said that opportunity looks a lot like hard work. For Payan, learning to be an engineer in what, back then, was a foreign country, and deciding to come back home to start a business prepared him for the opportunity he plans to harvest in Kenya. Although he earned a degree in geotechnical engineering, his passion for design and making functional objects pulled him away from earth engineering. He settled on building a stove that’s suited to Kenya’s needs, building his startup around locally-available materials. He shares the pride of locals in Kenyan-built products.

Regulation and Relief

What is it like to straddle cultures on two continents? How tough is it to negotiate local and national regulations as an entrepreneur in Kenya? Despite coming back home, Payan admits it’s like walking over hot coals some days. His biggest needs are for capital for this startup and a friendly pathfinder through the regulatory woods.

Fortunately, Payan is not alone in this venture; he persuaded his American partner, Erin Engelson, to join him, leave her science lab, pack up all their belongings and move their fledgling startup to East Africa. Erin has been testing prototypes with women, hearing personal stories about various Kenyan cooking practices, as well as the costs associated with household energy needs. “My favorite part of this project has been to cook with women and learn how to live more ‘pole, pole,’” says Erin, quoting a common Swahili phrase that translates as “slowly, slowly,” that is: take it easy.

Erin Engelson gathering intell from Kenyan cooks, as they test the cool, safe exterior of a very hot Kenya Stove!

This is a harder lesson for Payan, whose testing routine is interrupted by worry about how to collect enough mathenge to cure and sell with the 1,000 stoves he intends to manufacture. He must have a permit to collect and transport the mathenge, invasive as it is. He needs eight different permits, including one that allows him to live, work and hire staff here to manufacture the Kenya Stove.

More opportunity born of hard work is Kenya Stove’s private-public partnership with the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute (KARI), who have offered a truckload of mathenge, while he waits for permit approvals. Recently the Climate Innovation Center (CIC) also accepted Kenya Stove as one of the startups in the GVEP and World Bank-funded initiative.

the concrete stove, wrapped in sheet metal, is cool to the touch.

The Center offers incubation space to Kenya Stove for a year and supports these young entrepreneurs as they navigate the rocky road of startups. Two dozen other businesses in Kenya are also working with CIC to create biogas, solar, and other solutions to reduce greenhouse gases, create jobs for Kenyans, and reduce carbon footprints.

Life and death issues are at stake in Payan’s search for the best stove, fuel, distribution networks and marketing approach. How will he win early adopters and bring cheap, safe cooking tools to the women who most need them? Young World Inventors will document Payan and Erin’s progress with video cameras, coming into homes and workshops as they try to change habitual cooking practice in Kenya.

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Young World Inventors: Inventors Who Inspire. Stories That Empower. An episodic web video series about making change in Africa.

Young World Inventors: Inventors Who Inspire. Stories That Empower. An episodic web video series about making change in Africa.