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How This New York Energy Startup is Bringing Power to Africa

BioLite uses its unique wood-burning process to cook food and create energy at the same time. The brand’s stoves and solar panels aren’t just for the backcountry in North America. They are improving the lives of thousands in Africa at the same time.

An outdoor company at heart, BioLite makes stoves, solar panels, and headlamps for backpacking, camping, and anything else you want to power outside.

What many people don’t know is that anything purchased from BioLite also funds its ‘Parallel Innovation,’ the second side to their business where they create clean, affordable power and cooking for those in Africa and India who can barely afford enough electricity to charge a phone.

BioLite Begins

BioLite started when Jonathan Cedar and Alec Drummond worked at a design firm in New York. Bonding over the sustainable design, they started working on a better stove. Using a small thermoelectric generator, a well-placed fan could increase the output of the fire and create less smoke and waste at the same time.

And then taking their creating to a combustion conference for feedback changed their lives.

The duo found out that 3 billion people cook over open smoky fires in their house on a daily basis. The smoke inhalation leads to 4 million premature deaths per year. More people are dying from smoke than HIV, malaria, and tuberculosis combined.

They now had a mission. Their new stove could use available fuel like wood or cow dung to cook, create 90% less smoke in the process, and could charge a phone at the same time.

Traditional companies can be large and slow, updating products only on a yearly pace or slower. Jonathan and Alec knew they had to move faster. With their experience in the design and tech startup world, quickly iterating new products would improve them faster.

After years of working on HomeStove and ways to get them into the hands of people that needed them in Africa and India, BioLite hit their mark.

HomeStove

CampStove is a small, wood-burning stove that generates its own electricity. That electricity powers a fan that pushes more air and oxygen into the fire, causing it to burn hotter. A hotter fire is a like a well-tuned car; less smoke comes out the exhaust. A hotter fire burns all the particulates instead of releasing them into the air, resulting in less smoke and less waste after.

The BioLite team took all their experience with CampStove and turned it into HomeStove, a larger version for the home (or backyard). HomeStove release 90% less smoke than traditional stoves and generates power at the same time. The power spins the internal fan, using half the fuel, and also charges a phone and runs a small LED light. Now instead of a smoky fire slowly killing the family, HomeStove cooks, charges devices, and lights up evening homework.

But their initial attempts at getting HomeStove to customers who needed it were failures.

BioLite first put its home stoves in Handi stores, small stores in markets that sold many things. A device people had never heard of using technology they had never seen before sitting on a shelf in a store failed to sell.

They then tried having Chaiwala, or tea sellers, sell them. Most corners in India have carts or small shops selling tea. They have a small fire, cooking the tea, then sell a cup for a couple rupees. The Chaiwala would cook on the HomeStove offering a demo while making the tea and people would be amazed and buy one. Didn’t happen.

They tried a BioLite store in a busy market. They could do demo’s and educate customers on what made the HomeStove special. The people who needed HomeStove’s were rarely in those markets.

Not to be dissuaded, they partnered with GreenLight India, who sold solar lights with community demonstrations. They fire up a demonstration in the streets with a fire with no smoke. They charge devices from the fire. Nothing is left once the fire is done.

With the support of local ‘BioLite Burners’ support reps walking people through how to use it and tackling any problems that came up, HomeStove then took off.

SolarHome 620

Expanding into solar lights and panels in 2015 and 2016 only made sense for BioLite. Their mission of Energy Everywhere aims to put clean energy in the hands of everyone on the planet. When the only power available to millions of people in India and Africa is an expensive kiosk miles away, the dream of having power and light in your own home is a distant one.

The SolarHome 620 is a small solar kit with 3 lights, a control box and 1 solar panel. The small 6W charges the 20 Wh battery in the control box and is enough to light the house for days. The control panel can play an FM radio or be loaded with a MicroSD card for music. Two USB ports on the side of the control box can charge phones and other small electronics.

But the SolarHome isn’t cheap. How do families who might make $2 per day afford brand-new electronics? This is where the phones come in.

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Why charge a phone?

We’ve mentioned phones multiple times in this article because they’re the most common device charged on BioLite HomeStoves and SolarHomes. Why would many people in a village that doesn’t even have power have cellular phones?

Because having a phone represents access to money.

Many locations in India and Africa still don’t have access to power but they do have cellular towers nearby. Most companies won’t run phone or power lines to homes that can’t afford it and it would be expensive to do so. Put up one cell tower, though, and it enables communication and remote banking for an entire area.

Through their phones, members of remove villages can make payments with their phones and access micro-finance programs, exactly what they need to afford something that can drastically improve their lives like fire-powered electricity and light. From time and money saved, HomeStove users can usually recoup the cost in six to eight months.

Headlamp 750, SolarPanel 10+ and FirePit

Because of technical innovations in the outdoor industry, BioLite can keep adventurers powered up while saving lives in Africa and India. Thinking like a true tech startup, they’re still creating brand new products that bring energy everywhere.

The latest light solution, HeadLamp 750, can run for 150 hours on low and pumps out 750 lumens on max brightness. The lightweight LED light on the front fits into the 3D SlimFit band that feels more like a headband that a light strapped to your head.

SolarPanel 10+ is a lightweight solar panel to power all your devices. You can strap it to your backpack, take it camping, or power phones at the cottage. The integrated sundial helps you link it directly to the sun.

Taking its experience from HomeStove to the backyard, FirePit is a smokeless firepit. A thermoelectric generator powers a fan from the heat of the fire. Throw a grill on top to cook dinner. Once you’re done, use the Bluetooth app to pump up the fan and the size of the flames to enjoy fire but not smoke.

Energy Everywhere

Now, because of BioLite, hundreds of thousands of people can breathe easier and see at night. Phones can be charged, homework can be done (maybe), and lives will be immeasurably improved. Since the black carbon emissions from open fires are second only to C02 as a driver for climate change, BioLite is certainly pushing hard toward its Climate Neutral goals.

BioLite has been fanning the flames on its innovation ever since it started. It seems the brand won’t be stopping until there is energy everywhere.

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