Tough Talk: Clean Cookstove Technology and "The Rockin' Girls of Kenya"

Posted on Monday, July 1, 2013

By Kevin Biller

I recently returned from an extraordinary trip. This time, my travels took me to Nairobi, Kenya, on a mission to support the startup of a powder coating finishing line for high efficiency cookstoves. It was a privilege to lend my insights and perspective on how best to prepare the cold rolled steel and how to apply a durable, heat-resistant powder coating to ensure a long service life.

This was my first trip to Africa and as typical as journeys go, it was the people that struck me the most. Let me provide some background.

I was working with Burn Manufacturing, the production company of the non-profit group, Burn Design Labs. These enterprises were founded by Peter Scott, a world renowned expert in clean cookstove technology that targets developing nations. The impetus behind this initiative is to provide an alternative to the conventional cooking methods that create a host of environmental and health issues.

Prevailing cooking technology consists of balancing a cast iron pot on an open fire supported by locally gathered fuel (sticks, charcoal, dung, etc.). Women are forced to trudge up to 30 miles a day in search of fuel. The main reason for the long haul is the rapidly increasing deforestation endemic to many of these developing nations.


Clean cookstove designs (www. cleancookstoves.org) offer incredible benefit both for the environment and the user. Because of their high efficiency, clean cookstoves require only a fraction of the fuel to accomplish the same amount of cooking, which reduces the burden on vegetation and other fuel sources. In addition, the efficient combustion process significantly reduces the generation of air-polluting particulates and the emission of greenhouse gases.

The reduced exposure to respiratory damaging smoke may be the most immediate benefit. Conversion to clean cookstove technology will save millions of women from falling victim to pneumonia, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

When I was asked to support and influence the powder coating technology for Burn Design’s products, I was immediately sold. Seldom do we get an opportunity to give back to the world community in such a tangible way. I worked with their team in Vashon, Wash., by advising as to which powder technologies are best suited to meet their durability and heat-resistance specification. In addition, The PCR Group also provided evaluation services to verify coating performance and consistency

My support culminated with a visit to Nairobi to help set up the production finishing process in a fledgling metal fabrication shop, KenMet, owned and run by an ex-pat Indian entrepreneur, Mohan Karuvan. He recently installed a powder coating line for his metal fab business. I helped establish coating specifications, write manufacturing procedures, create safety policy and ran metal pretreatment studies.

The most rewarding part of my experience has been working with some of the coolest people I’ve ever met. My sidekick for most of my Kenyan efforts was Mindy Phung, an intern who recently graduated from Stanford University. She worked tirelessly with project logistics, report writing, and the procurement of resources. Mindy is part of the amazing pair, “The Rockin’ Girls of Kenya”. The other half of this dynamic duo (dubbed “Windy”) is a woman with equally incredible enthusiasm and credentials, Winnie Nailantei. Winnie is an honors graduate of the University of Nairobi with a major in supply chain and administration.

In addition to supporting the production effort both Winnie and Mindy perform market research on the acceptance, usefulness and pricing of introducing this game-changing technology. As Mindy explains, “We conduct focus groups, market research, and controlled cooking tests. Focus groups are done with small groups, maybe 4 to 8 people, and we cook together, ask questions throughout, record subtle observations, and ultimately collect a lot of qualitative data about the user experience. Market research is done with larger groups. We aim for 50 to 100 people at least, and we get them to fill out quick surveys in order to collect more quantitative data about preferences, etc. We haven’t conducted many controlled cooking tests, but the idea is to control as many variables as possible and record performance data about the stove with as realistic conditions as possible (opposed to evaluating the stove’s performance in the lab).”

I asked Mindy what she liked most about her job and she replied, “My favorite experiences so far have been the focus groups. I love the opportunity to speak in depth with the ladies 1-on-1, and cooking and eating always brings people closer. We ask them questions before and after cooking to see how their perceptions might change. We observe inconsistencies in what they say, or sometimes inconsistencies between what they say and do, and try to dig deeper into what this means about their perceptions and experiences around the stoves.”

Heading up the Kenyan operation for Burn Manufacturing is a remarkable man and world traveler, Eoin Flinn. Eoin is a globetrotting Irish-American with a penchant for introducing new technology to transform the lives of people in developing countries. Burn Design found Eoin in the Bamyin Province of Afghanistan as he was winding up a UNEP (United Nations Environmental Programme) gig as an advocate for clean cooking technology to the local population. He joined Burn Manufacturing in April 2012 and heads up the manufacturing, product design and sales efforts in Nairobi.

Eoin is a true global citizen as he has traversed dozens of countries, including making a two-year land trek from Chengu, Mongolia to Cape Town with his partner and now wife, Megan Root. His multiple skills and world perspective have allowed him to be amazingly productive and efficient in this challenging environment.

Powder coating may be but a minor component of this game-changing cookstove technology. At the end of the day, it is the people who are changing the lives of our sisters and brothers in faraway places. Hats off to Peter Scott, Eoin Flinn and The Rockin’ Girls of Kenya.

For more information about clean cookstove technology and Burn Design Lab, visit www.burndesignlab.org.

Kevin Biller is technical editor of Powder Coated Tough magazine. He can be reached at 614-354-1198 or via email at kevinbiller@yahoo.com.