BROOKLYN, New York — In Brooklyn, New York a five-year-old startup company called BioLite is transforming the way the world looks at stoves. About the size of a portable grill, the cylindrical BioLite stoves were created for campers as a better alternative to an open fire. But after winning a contest for advanced combustion in Washington, the founders of BioLite realized that their stoves could be revolutionary for global health.
Three billion people in the world cook and heat their homes using biomass fuels such as wood, coal, crop and animal waste. Overexposure to the toxins emitted from these materials causes 4.3 million premature deaths each year.
Burning biomass materials releases harmful pollutants into the air such as soot, carbon monoxide, and other carcinogens. When open fires are used in poorly ventilated and cramped spaces these toxins are inhaled by users at unsafe levels. Particulates from the materials penetrate the lungs and lead to diseases such as pneumonia, stroke, heart disease, pulmonary disease and lung cancer.
The diseases caused by open-fire emissions disproportionately affect those people living in poverty, who cannot purchase controlled stoves. Women and children are impacted the most because they tend to have more proximity to the preparation of food.
In fact—more than 50 percent of the premature deaths caused by biomass pollutants are in children under five years old.
The company says that compared to an open fire BioLite stoves produce 90 percent fewer emissions and use 60 percent less wood while producing the same amount of heat. Replacing an open-fire stove with a BioLite has the potential for significant long-term health benefits for users exposed to biomass toxins. Soon after this idea emerged, BioLite launched pilot programs to bring stoves to impoverished people in Uganda, Ghana and India.
BioLite stoves sell for $130 in the U.S. and $50 in the pilot countries. The price disparity is what makes BioLite a success in developing countries so far. “Our approach has been how do we take advanced technology, manufacture it in incredibly cost effective ways and then deliver it to poor customers who need them the most,” says Jonathan Cedar, co-founder of BioLite in an article in Inside Climate News.
In this business model, proceeds from selling BioLite stoves to campers in the U.S. subsidize the costs to operate and distribute in emerging markets.
So far BioLite has sold thousands of stoves around the world. Many customers are even buying stoves to start their own businesses.
The BioLite website highlights the story of Erinah Nabisubi, who is a hospital worker and restaurant owner in Uganda. Through a microfinance loan, Nabisubi purchased four BioLite stoves and set up businesses for herself and three family members.
Since BioLite stoves use less biomass than open fire stoves Nabisubi was able to profit quickly and pay back her loan within a year. She also noticed the tangible health benefits from her new stoves.
“We used to buy expensive charcoal or use a lot of firewood for a three stone fire,” Nabisubi says. “The three stone fire gave a lot of smoke – the HomeStove, we don’t see any smoke. I don’t know where the smoke goes! Now we use only small pieces of firewood and save money.”
While research is being done to determine the health benefits to those already possessing BioLite stoves, the company is attracting attention worldwide. Just last year BioLite’s founders spoke at a convention in front of the UN General Assembly and USAID members about their mission.
The company hopes to sell a million stoves within the next four years.
– Celestina Radogno
Sources: BioLite, Inside Climate News, World Health Organization