| Boiling Point No. 23 - December 1990 |
by Tim Jones, ITDG Ceramicist
A stove has been designed and tested and is now in production, perhaps by several producers. Sales are going well after the marketing campaign but then the problems start.
Complaints begin to come in that the stoves are cracking on first or second time of lighting, pot-rests have fallen off, the entrance to the stove has grown larger or smaller and so have the pot-rests. Retailers arc complaining that they cannot get a regular supply or that there are too many breakages due to poor packing and transport and that the finish on the stoves has become rough etc.
There must be ways to minimise the chances of a disaster developing once everything has been going so well. We were faced with this question regarding quality control and trouble shooting on the Sri Lanka stove project and with experience are beginning to get the hang of it.
The first and most important thing to be established as production gets underway are lines of communication between producers and retailers. This is not too difficult as they both have a vested interest in keeping good contact. What is more difficult is establishing some kind of feed back between the purchaser and the retailer so that any problems that occur with the stoves once they are in domestic use are reported as early as possible. Consumer complaints can then be passed on to the producers for correction.
In an attempt to establish this line of contact in the 'Centre of Appropriate Technology' Dissemination Programme in Tamil Nadu, South India, cards are being issued with every stove sold (see a sample of the cards above). These are filled in by the consumer/retailer so that it is known where and when the stoves were sold, plus what type of stove it was. This information is kept by the retailer, while the other half of the card is taken away by the customer to be filled in after using the stove for a while and is then posted back to the project coordinator or collected by the retailer. This may encourage the customers to return to the retailer and complain if the stove is not satisfactory because they know the retailer has a record of their purchase. The project coordinator also has a record of how the stoves are selling and how well they are or are not being accepted once they are in use in the households. We await reports of the success of this system.
For long term sustainability of the programme, it must ensure that the customer contacts the retailer who sorts out the problem, hopefully there and then, with a repair, money back or a replacement stove. The retailer then goes back to the producer to pass on the complaint and to sort out some kind of refund for themself. At this point it is important that the nature of the stove failure is specified as it is the only feedback that the producer will receive from the end user. This is the point when effective communications are likely to collapse resulting in stove defects continuing with a consequent fall in sales and disillusioned users.
In theory, if the project is to be fully sustainable it must continue to operate within the local market framework. In practice, with a stove project, someone has to be in a position to make sure that the communication links remain open and are effective, and to be responsible for product quality. This should continue until the marketing system has been properly established, which could take more than a year.
Quality control is the key to the smooth running and continuation of the project. As long as the product is of high standard it will continue to sell; as soon as the quality drops and people start questioning the quality, sales will fall. Strong lines of communication need to be established when production starts or else someone needs to be trained to continue monitoring the production.
In Sri Lanka funds are allocated to pay an independent person to test the stoves as they come from new producers or from factories which change their clay mixtures. This person carries out quality control at all the factories and provides extra training needed at the factories or with other organisations and groups which need it. He collects data on production and sales from the production centres and keeps in touch with dissemination in Colombo.
Although the importance of this policy of ensuring a continuing high level of consistency and quality in the stove to be disseminated has been clearly demonstrated in ITDG's work on ceramic stoves, it is equally important for all stove programmes and in fact for all programmes including mass dissemination of consumer goods. Even a free stove from a grant scheme will be rejected if it does not work perfectly and the scheme will be discredited.