Kyoto Energy - Design Bureau

Kyoto Energy

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010

Entrepreneur Jon Bøhmer was inspired to make a change after witnessing how a lack of usable water affected poverty-stricken communities in his adoptive home of Kenya. So, he created the Kyoto Box: a compact solar cooker made from polypropylene and acrylic glass that boils water by harnessing solar energy—and made it affordable for the audience who needs it most.

The Kyoto Box went on to win the Financial Times Climate Challenge award for most innovative solution to the effects of climate change, and began the basis for a company that promises to implement new planet-saving products every three months. As Bøhmer prepared to take Kyoto products worldwide, he talked with Design Bureau about his eco-friendly inventions and why good product design can change poverty.

My wife is from Kenya, so coming here in 1993 opened my eyes to the huge unsolved needs in product development to solve poverty. My thinking was, without tools, how can people escape the poverty trap? Energy and water are the first places to start, as they are the enabler of any economic activity.

I am very inspired by the Kyoto Protocol, which was signed in 1997. It has two pillars: reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“abatement”) and to help those who have been hurt by climate change (“adaptation”).

Since I saw old women carrying huge loads of firewood over long distances here in Kenya, I started thinking about alternate ways to cook food. Cooking is 90% of the energy use in developing countries and is responsible for half the deforestation, so it needed to be solved first. For a long time I was struggling to find a design that could be made for under $100 until I decided to go for the simplest I could find, which is the card box cooker (actually based on a design from 1767!) I take a lot of inspiration from the great inventors in history.

Winning the FT Climate Challenge award led to massive PR worldwide; it seems the quest for simple solutions in an overcomplicated world resonated with a lot of people. As a result, I have received thousands of emails from supporters and distributors all over the world. We have also been nominated to the Design of the Year from both Wallpaper Magazine and the Design Museum in London (it is displayed there as we speak), as well as being included in a number of educational books on design which is a great honor.

My thinking was, without tools, how can people escape the poverty trap? Energy and water are the first places to start, as they are the enabler of any economic activity.

We believe in “photon harvesting." The sun's rays have so much energy and there are so many ways of harvesting it: through plants and algae, photovoltaics, optics and heat production. We also believe in using existing large-scale materials and manufacturing capacity; plastics and aluminum are our favorites, recycled and recyclable materials that will never run out. We stay away from rare materials as they create political instability and do not scale well. None of our products require building any new plants, so the scaling can be super fast with very little investment. This is what we need (and can) do to solve today’s massive pollution and poverty problems.

The Kyoto Bag is another of our products that is unassuming but incredibly useful.We started with an existing flat jerrycan product and added the solar heating function and a showerhead. It is basically a bathroom in a bag. The Turbo is also very popular as it can use agricultural waste to cook instead of wood and has very little smoke. Most of our products are just coming out from beta testing and we now have to build a completely new distribution channel as this does not exist in the locations we want it to go, which is a huge effort that will take years.

The Kyoto Box is about 20 Euros right now, but when we get the carbon credits for the use of these we expect to be able to sell them for less than 5 Euros. That puts it within range of intended audience, which is among the poorest in the world.

I have a manic disorder about inefficient practices—I have to improve whatever I see and just being here in Africa exposes me to horrific struggles every day that we cannot imagine in the developed world. As an entrepreneur, it is also a huge market opportunity that is being completely ignored.

We have many grassroots organizations that use and resell our products. We have not got much attention from international NGOs - most of them are not active in energy and many do not do practical work only policy, and none support design of new products for the poor to my great surprise.

We have about 30 products in the pipeline—water pumps, algae growing systems, plastic housing, low cost greenhouses, desalination systems, crop drying systems and several software products for mobile phones, educational systems using micro projectors and so on. We have to fund this ourselves, as there is hardly any funding available anywhere for research and development for the poor. Nevertheless, we pride ourselves on being probably the first design house dedicated to poverty reduction and our promise is to launch a new product at least every three months.

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