When I think about, and have the vision for, the transformation of cooking through the ecooking proposition, I think that there are similarities to the mobile phone revolution. There is a belief in me that once the price point is reached, and the business models are put in place, the proposition will very quickly be taken up and overcome some of the traditional barriers for electricity access and improved stoves.
It is this vision, this inspiration, which makes me want to Champion it. Here are some of the things I see in my mind’s eye – none of which are provable at the moment!
One small caveat before I start. I am now juggling two ‘innovative impacts’ in the ecooking proposition (its USP). One is the replacement of charcoal with its deadly emissions with a clean emission free (in the kitchen and surrounds) cost effective alternative – lets call that a ‘fuel switch’. The other is the unlocking of existing electricity access by giving the consumer greater control and reliability – a demand side management that will use consumer driven products to make more effective use of the grid or renewables – lets call this ‘reliable access’. In the list below I sometimes jump between the two key benefits – ‘fuel switching’ and ‘reliable access’.
- Detaching the cables. After decades of trying to roll out cables to get landlines into households, and millions in investment, mobiles introduced a ‘detached’ system. It still required infrastructural investment but the last mile delivery was in partnership with the household. Once a ‘sales point’ (Mast) was established by the Mobile Network Operator, households could go out and purchase equipment (a mobile) that was appropriately sized for their desired use. The last mile did not rely on rolling out a cable to every house, did not rely on the GANNT chart of the utility to put in cables, but was facilitated through self-purchase market delivery. The last mile delivery of ecooking is that the household can be self-purchased by the household. Indeed if linked to renewables (solar) then no utility cables are required at all.
- Both built on the lithium battery. Significant advances in Lithium Batteries enabled the mobile phone revolution. I remember during my PhD a colleague bought one of the first ‘portable’ phones. He had a battery the size and weight of a small suitcase full of paper. I offer an image for those of you who don’t remember them! And now…how small will they get? While miniaturisation of electronics has of course increasingly kicked in, it is the significant changes in battery energy density that enabled the mobile revolution. This is what fuels my reimagining of cooking – what could not be done sensibly even ten years ago, can now be considered. And with the ongoing changes in battery technology (fuelled by those mobile, computer and electric car revolutions), what today may seem borderline and awkward (like that first portable telephone), will within 5 years be increasingly reasonable.
- New stakeholders, new organisational landscape. When mobile phones started, the telephonic landscape was that of a utility monopoly often owned by the government. New policies, new licences, opened up the business landscape and enabled new stakeholders to enter the game. For a long time Mobile Network Operators were thought to be the poor cousin of the ‘real’ telephone companies, the utilities. Now they are the powerhouse of economic development in any African countries. The similarity is that currently electricity is handled by utilities, large players that look down on those trying to implement solar lighting, or renewable energy micro grids. The introduction of an industry that rolls out renewable energy enabled cooking, could gradually provide a gateway to modern energy generally and end up as large as existing utilities.
- Pay as you go. Mobile phones have relied on a pay as you go business model. Unlike the supply of a landlines which relied on a monthly subscription. While Mobile phones in the West are managed by contract (monthly payments), their spread and uptake was facilitated by a pay as you go model, and in Africa the pay as you go model remains the dominant one. It matches the spending patterns of households. Charcoal is already pay as you go, but then a key to unlocking this proposition is the positioning of a pay as you go model for its roll out.
- Universal service funds. Certainly in the early days, governments were concerned that the new mobile operators would not reach the difficult to reach areas. Since the roll out was based on a market model it was thought that the hard to reach areas with low population would not be profitable enough to justify the infrastructure. They introduced ‘taxes’ that were assigned to a universal service fund, and policies bound the new players to reaching out to the hard to reach places – subsidised by the universal funds. It has been an imperfect system, and many would argue that it had very limited use. In some cases new MNOs were set up who used universal funds, but because they were small players they were eventually overwhelmed by the large MNOs. However, the proposition is likely to find traction in areas of high charcoal price but may need to be supported in the hard to reach areas where density of people is less, and biomass purchase is lower.
- Convenience and control. Even if you had a landline (in Africa), you couldn’t rely on it. I lived for a while in Thika, Kenya, and at first we had to dial an operator to get connected, and then we had a direct dial line that worked about 20% of the time. Mobile phone introduced reliability. Even if you had no signal the option was (and is – since they are not perfect and some parts of that same farm in Thika still has a signal shadow) to get in the car or on your bicycle and relocate until you found the mobile signal. The consumer had more control over when the device worked. When contrasting ‘cooking with electricity’ and ‘the proposition’, ie the inclusion of the battery, the battery gives more control, more autonomy, more reliability.
- Aspirational equipment – the equipment will be ‘modern’. It will have a certain prestige to it that makes even the poor ‘want one’. Studies show that the poor and vulnerable spend a sizeable proportion of their income on mobile phones – indeed some studies would argue that the very poor spend too much in the sense that they do not get an economic return on their use of the phone. Of course they get a social return, and they spend because of social expectations – that they keep in touch with friends and family. I believe there will be a social standing/prestige that at some point will kick in and rive uptake.
- Roll out will likely spread through different markets. It was of course the richer segments of society that first took up mobiles, then the middle class, then the poor. A lot of sharing in the interim stages with neighbours offering to lend their phone. It is likely ecooking will start with the rich, then middle class, then poor – but the transition between zones will be quick.
- Competition keeps prices low. Mobile phones are an example of market forces and competition working alongside policy to present a viable proposition to the consumers. Handsets were developed in China, and imported. The same effect may occur – with asia driving the price down on the products and units, and the African market keeping prices as low as possible because the proposition is not based on a monopoly.
- ….I couldn’t think of a tenth similarity, but I am sure there is one. Please add to the comments.
 Electric cooking linked to energy storage and new developments in battery technology, which enables more efficient use of the existing grid and use of renewables, which is facilitated through a pay as you go business model that utilises existing expenditure on charcoal (and wood), to deliver an emission free cooking experience in the kitchen and potentially reduces global emissions and expenditure over time, becoming a gateway to greater modern energy access.
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