Partner Spotlight: Burn Design Lab
By Eoin Flinn, Operations Manager, Burn Manufacturing
The smell of burning garbage fills my nostrils. The air is thick with dust and the heat relentless. The infrastructure is a hodgepodge of brightly painted corrugated tin, infused with a mess of wires, dogs, bicycles, plastic chairs, and tins of charcoal. But, as I drive through Kibera – one of the world’s most well-known slums – for the first time, what really shocks me is the intense level of commercial activity. Places of business are six feet wide and tightly packed in this section of Nairobi, the Kenyan capital. I take them in as I pass: newsagent, fruit store, coke kiosk, mpesa stall (offering scratch cards, sim replacement, phone charging), “pub and butchery”, key-cutter, furniture store, hair salon, shoe store, music store, “web studio”, another mpesa stall… and that’s all in about 50 meters. The bustle of human enterprise is immense – here is a place where you can buy an organic tomato for $0.06, a big delicious avocado for $0.29 or pack of matches for $0.02. I can’t help but think of the manufacturing, logistics, handling and overhead that got that pack of matches here – subsidy free – for 2 cents.
Four months prior I am driving into Burn Design Lab on Vashon Island. Vashon is a lush, overgrown island 20 minutes by ferry from downtown Seattle, Washington, home to hippies and retired Microsoft millionaires. Over the course of the next four months I was fascinated by the level of engineering, design expertise, and sheer effort that goes into designing efficient charcoal cookstoves for developing countries. Brilliant minds from top universities, working 10 to 12 hours a day, with cutting edge tools and technologies. My first reaction is to say – ‘guys, we’re not making iPods here’. These stoves are for poor people, how can it be financially viable to devote so many resources to user-centered design? (I subsequently learned about the new American right of passage – unpaid internships).
Of course, what I didn’t realize then (despite my well-brewed vision that trade with the developing world – not charity – would facilitate progress) was that in order to truly succeed in designing, manufacturing, marketing, and selling great products, you do need to treat your business like you are in fact making iPods. There is a tendency to think that because we’re making products that improve people’s lives we don’t need to focus too much on user-centered design, on marketing, on packaging, on aesthetics. Wrong. It’s a different economy, but it’s still very much an economy. The slums of Kenya are among the most intense marketplaces I have seen – consumers compare prices, reject waste, aspire to better quality than they could afford last year. If you want to do business here, you need to compete.
Seeing Kenyan women’s reactions to the Burn cookstoves brings it home for me. It feels good to give but the feeling of working so hard on a product that can subsequently scale through the open market is on another level. Coupling that with bringing industrial steel fabrication and continuous flow manufacturing to Nairobi completes the picture. Burn is one example of many great projects that I see happening now in East Africa – the west engaging with Africa in the spirit of trade, with energy and excitement.
Burn is proud to partner with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves – their market-based approach to scaling adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels is necessary to make a big dent in this issue that impacts almost half the people on the planet. The Alliance recently announced Kenya as one of its six priority countries for engagement, and Burn looks forward to playing a big role in this endeavor.
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