| Boiling Point No. 30 - April 1993 |
by Caroline Ashley, SHE Programme, ITDG
Most attempts at stove commercialization in India are dwarfed by the Government's subsidized National Programme for Improved Chulhas (NPIC). But in this case study from South India, it was a locally designed and made commercial stove that outanked 'improved stoves' promoted by stove agencies. This article, based on a project evaluation, describes the variety of factors influencing women's choice of stoves, and suggests a number of lessons about how to implement commercialization projects.
A project to introduce Agni and Deepam Stoves to the commercial market in Kanyakumari District of Kerala began in 1989, run by the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) with assistance from ITDG. The 2-pot Agni and 1-pot Deepam chimneyless stoves are made of fired clay and are based on the popular Sri Lankan Anagi. Their fuel efficiency is comparable with the Magan Chulha,
and other stoves in the NPIC, but unlike the Magan they have no chimney and so are portable and cheap enough to be sold commercially. The project aimed to prove the potential for commercial production and marketing of the stoves with the hope of demonstrating that high-performance stoves could be successfully disseminated commercially rather than through the government's extension subsidy system.
The Agni and Deepam stoves were introduced after two years of extensive lab tests, field tests and fuel-use surveys. Five potters were trained to produce the stoves. In 1990 and 1991, 23 retailers and 5 women's groups were supplied with 461 Agni and 300 Deepam stoves. The purchaser seem positive about their performance, particularly their fuel efficiency and yet, by February 1993, fewer than 500 had been sold, whereas sales of the local Chenkottai stove are of hundreds, if not thousands, per month. The end of project evaluation looked at why Agni and Deepam stoves could not compete with the market leader and identified the many factors influencing women's choice of stove in the market place:
Chenkottai, Agni or Deepam: Customers' Choice
The Chenkottai is sp appropriate to cooking habits in coastal communities that Deepam's lower price still does not attract customers. Rice, rice porridge and fish are the staple diet and all women use a Chenkottai one pot stove because the bumps on the front of the stove make it possible to pour out the rice water (porridge) while the pan is still on the stove. Furthermore, the women cook several kilos of rice once a day, the sturdy Chenkottai can take pans large enough and can support the heavy weight. Deepam does not have bumps and is lightweight.
In other areas retailers report that the prices of the Agni and Deepam are a significant attraction to some customers. However, while Agni and Deepam undercut the Chenkottai, they are undercut by chimney stoves sold for just 5 Rs through the NPIC. Where these are available, it is usually only the better-off women, such as teachers, who buy Agni or Deepam.
Retailers said that the Agni lacked durability, and that its appearance and shape was a weakness. Agni 'looks weak'. In contrast, a Chenkottai is reported to last for 15 years if installed in mud (one retailer has had his for 20 years). It certainly looks and feels strong—almost too heavy to carry.
Another advantage of Chenkottai stoves is that they are sold in 4 different sizes, so families that regularly use large pots can purchase a larger size. Agni comes in one size and several users mentioned the pot holes were too small.
Portability is one of the advantages of Agni and Deepam. The Agni was designed (in Sri Lanka) to be installed in mud, but in Kanyakumari two thirds of Agni users and three quarters of Deepam users have not done so and several users seem to use it for cooking outside. Neither the Magan Chulha nor the Chenkottai can be moved (even if not installed in mud), so the Agni and Deepam are useful for those who have no kitchen, are not settled, or want the option of cooking outside.
One of the main advantages of the Agni over the 2-pot Chenkottai is that, because of its better internal design, more heat reaches the second pot. A retailer at Ambili Traders explained why Agni sells better than Chenkottai 2-pot: "you can't cook rice on the Chenkottai's second pot". Apparently this argument helps persuade customers to buy Agni instead of a 2-pot Chenkottai.
Traditionally in this area, even numbers are unlucky and odd numbers are lucky. So in some parts of Kanyakumari, households must have one or three pot-holes, not two. One of the reasons why Deepam is bought is to make a 3-pot set with Agni.
Marketing and Supply
Persuasive retailers and promotional material can clearly boost sales. According to the retailers, hoardings advertising Agni and Deepam sometimes attract customers in with questions. More often, Agnis are sold to those who come looking to buy a small Chenkottai two-pot, and are then persuaded by the retailer and a promotional leaflet produced by the project.
However, apart from the commercial appeal of Chenkottai stoves, there were other obstacles to commercial take off of Angi and Deepam. In practice supplies were low and limited to a few outlets for 3 reasons:
• low potters' motivation to produce stoves; potters complain that the prices they receive for making Agni and Deepam is too low compared to the mark-up on chimney stoves made for the Government programme;
• low retailers' incentives to sell them; mark-ups were lower than on Chenkottai stoves;
• dependence on CAT to act as transporter and wholesaler. The project did not work through the existing distribution networks of either local potters or of the Chenkottai stove producers.
Market Survey & Project Plan
If local cooks' ideal stove would combine the strength and shape of the Chenkottai with the fuel efficiency and portability of the Agni, why was this not recognized at the beginning of the project? Why was the stove design not appropriate for the market? The answer lies in weaknesses in both the design and implementation of the project. The pre-design period collected masses of information, but not necessarily the most important.
The project went ahead without some key pieces of information, such as the advantages of the Chenkottai stove, for several reasons:
• A quantitative survey on fuel and stove use was not supplemented with any qualitative research, such as informal interviews, to find out why households in different areas used their particular stoves;
• In testing traditional stoves, Chenkottai was often not distinguished from other mud-built and U-Chulha traditional stoves.
To compound the problems in design, the project was not set up or carried out in a way that would identify this fault, and correct it, early on in the project. It was intended to be a 6-month pilot project, to learn lessons rather than to disseminate large number of stoves. However, there was confusion in the project plans as to whether the aim was to demonstrate the (assumed) commercial market for the 2 stoves, or to test whether it existed. Project activities went ahead over 2 years on the assumption that the market existed, with little effort to stand back and assess whether it did in fact exist. For example: the activities that were planned for the project were more to disseminate stoves than research the market as the available skills were not appropriate for market research; lack of analytical monitoring during the project meant that activity plans were pursued, without analysing whether these activities were in fact testing the market.
Ed Note: ITDG's Stove Project Manual (S Joseph, Y Shanahan and W Stewart), 1985 price £12.00, from IT Pubs, looks at all the problems brought out in this article and gives clear guidelines for needs assessment and pilot stove project planning.