Improving cookstoves—and the market for them—in Laos

  • Most families prepare meals two to three times a day in Laos. They often use charcoal for cooking and on average, each household uses 40 kg of charcoal each month, costing US$10. SNV aims to replace old cookstoves with improved cookstoves. SNV

  • SNV works with entrepreneurs that manufacture the improved cookstove. With new tools, the production is faster and quality of the final product is consistent. On average, a producer delivers 500 stoves per month. SNV

  • Most retail stores are owned by women and sell about 20 stoves a month. The improved cookstove costs US$5, which is only two dollars more than other stoves. The improved cookstove is an easy sell because of its higher efficiency and quality over traditional stoves. SNV

  • SNV has trained government staff and set up four testing labs in Laos. At the labs, the quality of cookstoves is tested and research takes place to optimize stove design. Previously, there were no facilities to test a stove and it was not possible to measure the difference between models. SNV

  • The Lao Women's Union and the SNV project team give demonstrations of cooking with the improved cookstove in markets and at festivals. Because of the high demand, improved stoves sell quickly. SNV

  • Traditional cookstoves produce higher emissions than the improved cookstove. SNV's goal is to produce 100,000 stoves by 2016, which saves more than 10 million kg of charcoal or 32 million kg of wood. The reduction is equal to the greenhouse gas emissions of 20,000 people flying from Vientiane to Amsterdam and back. SNV

For many startup ventures, the road to achieve success isn’t typically an easy one, at least not initially. The SNV Improved Cook Stoves project in Lao PDR knows this firsthand.

Starting with only 20 retailers in 2011, the project now includes 660 retailers, of which 90% are women.  Greenhouse gas emissions from cook stoves have been reduced by as much as 1 metric ton per stove per year. The stoves boast a 95% satisfaction rate among consumers, an enviable statistic for any business.  As of 2015, two years after the upscaling phase of the program began, SNV and its partners celebrated the production of the 50,000th cook stove.  Most exciting, perhaps, is SNV Sector Leader Bastiaan Teune’s observation that “the market expanded by itself to new provinces, and retailers and producers increasingly knocked on our door to participate instead of us looking out for interested people like [we did] in the beginning.”

The Improved Cook Stoves are more expensive than traditional stoves, selling for at least 4.5 Euros, giving pause to consumers and retailers alike.  But, as Teune points out, “It [the cook stoves] was a simple, logical, and understandable win-win proposition for producers, retailers, and to users.  The ICS was a very good business model compared to the baseline stoves and it fit perfectly with the cooking requirements of households.”

In 2010, SNV and its partners conducted a market analysis to determine why higher quality, more energy efficient Improved Cook Stoves (ICS) were not making their way into low-income homes in Lao PDR.  Armed with their analysis, SNV developed and executed a pilot study in Savannakhet Province. The success of the pilot project allowed SNV to scale up the techniques used in Savannakhet. “[We] took a methodological and careful step-wise approach that paved the way,” says Teune, “we were never afraid to work with different specialists and let them share their knowledge and experience.”

SNV invested in the development of a cook stove-testing program and provided market training to retailers. Soon, retailers became more informed on the benefits of Improved Cook Stoves and were able to explain energy and cost savings to their customers. Most compelling from a financial perspective, Improved Cook Stoves save consumers about 2 Euros and 20 minutes of cooking time each month, last 18 months longer, and require almost 30% less fuel than traditional stoves. The reputation of the Improved Cook Stoves grew, and now customers specifically request the product. Says Ms. Sookthavee, a retailer in Savannakhet Province, “I am able to make more of a profit on the improved cook stoves because customers are willing to pay more for the quality now.”

The SNV Improved Cook Stoves project operates much like a business start-up. Building on their initial success, SNV is developing its relationship with Nexus, a nonprofit cooperative group that provides financial support to low-carbon projects. “Nexus [will] provide inputs and support to bring the carbon development to a good end, and they shall be financed by claiming priority on the carbon [credits]. This elegant modality makes Nexus our partner and shareholder rather than contractors, and this works very well,” Teune says.

The partnership with Nexus will ensure that SNV can continue to expand the distribution of Improved Cook Stoves in Laos and continue to regulate the cook stove market. Ultimately, Teune believes that the SNV Improved Cook Stove project “showcases that with relatively little public money a lot can be done by following the right approach, and that despite all difficulties sustainable development is viable and possible.”

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