When social enterprise Envirofit designed its first clean cook stove for the Indian market in 2007, little did it know that by the end of 2015 it would reach the milestone of delivering one million such stoves, half of them in India.

The journey, however, has been hard and the challenges daunting, says the company. It has meant addressing indoor pollution with solutions that are low cost but high quality, a mix that requires innovative thinking on the design desk and a flexible, people’s approach in marketing.

Catering to rural consumers in different geographies, climates and conditions for whom every penny counts means that the stove complies to their demands and desires. So apart from reducing smoke, it must also save them precious fuel and cooking time. Hence, from the first cook stove model (B-1200) with basic rocket-stove technology, today the Envirofit portfolio sports over a dozen of what they call “user designed products”.

“It was, in a sense, a learning curve with users as the principal partners in the design process. So we now have wood stoves, a charcoal line up, a two-flame design, stand up cooking stoves and the latest are clean stoves for institutional or industrial use,” says Harish Anchan, the Managing Director detailing the design journey.

The initial B-1200 featured a ceramic chamber with utilitarian handles and a cast iron pot support, but was heavy and often got damaged in transportation. Though consumers loved it for its price and that it saved them on wood consumption, it was not the ideal cooking solution. So Envirofit explored its potential further.

“We had to shift our technology development from a singular focus on building an efficient stove to a multifaceted focus on designing a high performance, aspirational home appliance.” With the help of consumer research, focus groups, and product testing, they managed to increase its efficiency and reduce cooking time. Improving its handle meant that it was now also portable. “Finally, Envirofit invested in industrial design to create a product that was not only cost effective, but visually appealing to customers.”

A partnership The battle to change traditional cooking methods was given an impetus in 2010 when the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC), a public-private partnership was formed. GACC pushed for involving other industry partners and raising awareness on the issue. According to the World Health Organisation in India indoor air pollution kills 500,000 people annually, of which 85 per cent are women and children under five years of age.

Then when Envirofit decided to enter the sub-Saharan African market, the game changed and so did the designs wanted by the rural African consumers. “In 2011 we discovered that the features desirable in India differed from what customers desired in Kenya.

“For example, people preferred the black colour to the orange colour and required a stove that could support large pots to feed large families.”

By the time new demand came in from commercial users, Envirofit had become better and better at innovating and started segmenting to target markets in rural, urban or peri-urban.

The HM 5000 model was a semi-knocked down stand up wood version where toxic emissions and fuel usage were reduced by 60 per cent and cooking time by half.

The CH 4400 was another charcoal version, which Envirofit says is its “cleanest burning stove”.

But its price of $45-50 was not exactly affordable for the mass-market, so the enterprise bracketed it in the premium products for higher margin households and institutions such as schools, canteens and hospitals. In India too Envirofit is trying to popularise its institutional offerings.

“We have sold quite a few here. Tata Tea has picked up 10 industrial stoves for their hospitals at the tea plantations in Assam, Lupin Foundation has installed around 30 in orphanages they support, so have other corporate companies for their CSR ventures... more people need to see the magic,” says Harish as he reels off the statistics on how they have helped pollution and the environment.

“One million cook stoves have prevented the release of 17 million tons of CO2, saved consumers 900 crores in fuel costs, saved wood collectors 18 million working weeks of time, created 2,400 jobs and positively impacted 5 million lives,” he says with conviction.