June 3, 2016
I work at Burn Design lab leading the design of their natural draft cookstove. I had been working at BDL for about 8 months when I was told I would be going to Kenya for two weeks to participate in market research. In the time leading up to my trip I had never seen the stove that I was designing used for anything other than boiling water. This is a conundrum for a designer because you tend to draw from experiences to gauge whether the choices you are making in your design are sensible. Four years of college with a diet consisting exclusively of sandwiches somehow did not prepare me to put myself in the shoes of a Kenyan mother cooking for a family of seven. Videos and photographs can give you a foothold on the challenge, and the stockpile of scientific research allows you take the first steps. But when you sit in someone’s home and you are struggling to breathe while they make you tea, the design objective burns a little brighter in your mind.
The market research we were conducting took place in a rural area of Kenya called Kericho, known for its tea plantations. The town of Kericho is small but bustling: markets, stalls, livestock, and people line the streets on a given day. While there I was working with a member of BURN’s market research team named Hellen. In BURN’s long track record of hiring good and competent employees, Hellen would certainly make it onto their greatest hits album. To work in market research, especially in the rural areas of Kenya, you need to be polite yet firm, organized yet flexible, and intelligent yet savvy. These are all characteristics that the average human is lacking. Hellen, however, could deal with every strange personality, every wrench in the schedule, every iota of discomfort that her job causes her, all while making sure I knew exactly how the local people were making fun of me in Swahili. We rode out to Kericho along with a few research assistants and 25 prototype stoves in one of BURN’s company vehicles, driven by Dickson, the company driver. The stoves took up the majority of the space in the vehicle and rattled loudly with every pot hole. The other passengers were generous enough to allow me to sit up front to truly experience the Kenyan countryside. This is fortunate because Dickson used to be a safari driver so it was like I was getting a guided tour. His narration consisted of pointing at things and saying stuff like “Uhn Monkey”, “Uhn Zebra”, and “Uhn Great Rift Valley”. The route to Kericho has many speed bumps and road side vendors that significantly extend the journey, but for me it offered a more reasonable pace to see the country.
While in Kericho we performed what are called “home placements”. This is when we give stoves to participants and allow them to cook with it over the course of a week or so. We would take the stoves to the users’ homes in person and introduce its features while also taking some measurements of their stick dimensions and wood moisture content. This was my first opportunity to see the homes of potential users of the stove. Sometimes we would enter the kitchens of these women when they were cooking on their old stoves and the room would be enveloped in smoke. Often they would lack chimneys or ventilation of any kind. Char would litter the floors and soot was evident on the walls. Rarely would a ceiling be tall enough for me to stand completely upright (I am 6 ft 1 inch tall). But what struck me the most during these visits was the character of the women. They were extraordinarily charming and sweet. They were doing us an enormous favor by participating in our program, and yet they treated us like we were the blessing in their household. Many had us stay for tea, and the ones who didn’t asked us to forgive them for not having tea prepared. The homes we visited were grouped together into a loose community so as Hellen and I walked from home to home we would gather a crowd of interested onlookers, mostly of children. The personalities of these children ranged from adorably shy to comically audacious. They would hold my hand as I walked, ask me questions about how my skin got so pale, and much to my amusement imitate my accent with little outbursts of “Ar-Ar-Ar”. I was known ubiquitously as “Mzungu”, a term that has come to mean “white person” but I prefer its literal translation of “aimless wanderer”. As I spoke to more women about their experiences with the stove I began to see just how much value it added it their lives. They would tell me excitedly that it allows them to breathe easier and cook faster so they had more time for other things in their life. They would explain how the ash tray makes it simpler to keep their homes clean. How being able to move the stove adds a level of flexibility to their schedule. Many people asked if they could buy their prototype stove, which unfortunately wasn’t possible. The question the women posed to me that really offered me a sense of direction as an aimless wanderer was how much the stove would cost. I had known before I went to Kenya that making the stove affordable was fiscally necessary. We just wouldn’t sell stoves if it wasn’t affordable. But being with these people, these mothers, and fathers, and children, made me see that the stove being affordable was essential for their livelihood.
This journey was important for me to see how the people would use my stove. But it was probably even more important for me to see how they would benefit. If there is any one thing that has convinced me of the importance of working for Burn Design Lab, above the environment, above economics, it is that the people we are working for deserve to have a better stove.