2. BURN – the stoves rocking the sub-Saharan Africa cooking scene

Burn Stoves

I spent my first project day with BURN, a company that designs and builds highly efficient cooking stoves, cutting down on fuel costs, cooking time and smokey emissions.

As soon as my Uber drove into the New Horizons Industrial Park in Ruiru, half an hour north of Nairobi, I couldn’t stop smiling.

My welcome from the security guard was really hospitable and he pointed me to the reception for Burn. I could already hear the industrial sounds from the shop floor when my host, Rebecca, came to collect me and took me through the workshop up to the R&D and Special Projects office.

A wide view of the BURN factory

The BURN research and development team in their office

I was introduced to the team and then Rebecca explained about Burn, and how the company and its products have evolved since it’s inception in 2011.

The principal product is the Jikokoa, a charcoal-fuelled rocket stove which uses around 50% less fuel than traditional Kenyan family-sized cooking stoves (three stone fires or traditional Jikos).

Close up of the Jikokoa stove

A close up of a traditional Kenyan stove

After my chat with Rebecca I sat out in the shady secret garden getting to know Phoebe, an electrical engineer working on R&D for a new electrical product. We had a really nice time chatting about our lives and how we got into engineering.

Then I was introduced to Ephantus, the Process Engineer overseeing the production lines. He gave me a great tour of all the manufacturing facilities and the tool fabrication workshops, including a start to finish product creation journey from goods in to quality checked product and warehousing.

Ephantus, a Process Engineer at BURN holds a Jikokoa while giving me a tour of the factory

The shop floor is a fascinating place and I really enjoyed getting an access all areas tour. It’s nice to feel so supported in developing an understanding of the company and the team.

Workers smiling as they take a break on the factory floor

Two design engineers inputting a job on a CNC machine

Next I had a chance to get to know Rebecca better so I was able to create a profile about her. She’s as much of a foodie as me so naturally our conversation set both of our tummies off rumbling.

Then I headed down to Ketty, the R&D analyst, in her lab. She was able to demonstrate the process followed to test new, modified and prototype stoves for the R&D guys, using carefully measured out fuel and water quantities, thermocouples and weighing scales. She also works to understand the impact of fuel type and quality on the temperature and characteristics of the burn. She also has a hot air oven which can be used to measure the amount of moisture in a sample of wood, as this has an impact on the burning properties.

Ketty setting up a test to show me how she measures stove efficiency in the laboratory

I went for lunch with the team to their favourite eatery, run by a woman known to everyone as Madhe “Mother”. The food was really wholesome and Mother only wanted to charge me 60Ksh (£0.49) for a huge plate of food because I was with the team and was keen to try the various dishes she had cooking. I also got a “tour” of the kitchen, which was a tiny space, possibly only 1.5 x 2 metres, absolutely jam packed with cooking stoves and pots in every available slot. Mother was also wearing a snazzy orange Jikokoa apron, so I wasn’t surprised to find the kitchen was filled with Burn stoves. Great to see them in use and, while the tin roof made the open-fronted restaurant very hot, it was absolutely void of smoke. And that is saying something in a Kenyan kitchen.

I joined the weekly team meeting out in the secret garden and was interested to hear the routine business of the R&D department of a start-up manufacturing business. It covered everything from concepts to costings to fire safety training, and plenty of light-hearted conversation.

The Research and Development Team meeting

My final chat of the visit was with Samuel, the mechanical design engineer. He is working to dramatically reduce the unit price of the Jikokoa stove to enable sales across the mass market. Currently the “classic’ stove costs 3,990KSh (£30.90) which, while dramatically assisting in the cost of living with reduced fuel costs, is actually a fairly substantial layout for families. Samuel aims to enable unit sales at 2,000KSh or below; a price point which market research indicates would seriously unlock the market. It was a very interesting discussion about Computer Aided Design (CAD), materials and manufacturing processes.

My taxi ride back to the city was simple – Uber is everywhere.

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