Wow… Feb was an amazing month for the Himalayan Rocket Stove project and the Smokeless Cookstove Revolution.
This is the longish version of some of the highlights.
If you want to read the short sharp and snappy version… click here
Early Feb I flew back to India to follow up with various aspects of the projects and to speak at the TEDx event in Ranchi. On arriving in Chandigarh and meeting with the accountant, I was told that I had to go back to Delhi to get my documents verified at the Australian Embassy. That worked out as I was promptly invited to a wedding in Delhi anyway, so off I went. One “Big Fat Indian Wedding” down, then off to the embassy, got the docs signed in about 10 minutes and started a conversation about the possibilities of getting any support from the Aust Govt. That got me connected to Austrade, first in Delhi, then in Chandigarh. Long story short, they are happy to refer me to their recommended people while I am operating as an incorporated entity in India and if I incorporate in Australia as well, then they would be able to do a lot more (still considering the options there). Through that meeting I got connected to FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry) and DFAT’s Direct Aid Program. Talks are still in progress.
In the first week I managed to get the documentation organised and submitted to incorporate the company in India. Then off to Ranchi to speak at the TEDx event, which was a lot of fun. I didn’t really know what to expect. The event was being run by students of the IIM (Indian Institute of Management) as part of their assessment, so they were enthusiastic and keen to do a great job.
I got to speak about midday (just before lunch) and it seemed to go well, although I won’t get to see a video for a few more weeks (if at all) as they go off to TED for review and editing. The immediate response was very positive, though, with a lot of people connecting after the talk. One of those eager to connect was the secretary to the Chief Mininster of Jharkhand (the state of which Ranchi is capital), expressing very strongly the need to get the workshops happening in the state. We are now in talks with the Government department responsible for that. There were various NGO’s and other groups who were also keen to see the workshops roll out in that region, as it is well known for having a lot of tribal people living in and around the forests, and there is a keenly felt need to reduce the air pollution from the cook fires.
After Ranchi, I flew direct across to Mumbai for a number of meetings and media interviews. The first morning I was up early to head into the only English language radio station for an hour long drive time interview with a well known radio jocky, Hrishi Kay. (Recordings for this are linked here). That went well with a great response from people messaging in with supportive comments and requests to help. From there, a meeting with a venture fund manager who was clear from the outset that the HRS wasn’t his kind of project, but who liked it anyway and gave great feedback about the slide deck and some tips for negotiating with investors. More meetings, lots of great feedback and connections, then back to Chandigarh.
Sitting on the plane, I opened my laptop to work on the slide deck and after barely a minute the man in the seat next to me starts talking to me. Turns out he is a professor at a university in Chandigarh running the start up and entrepreneurship program. He liked what I was doing and invited me to speak to his students and went on to tell me about the TIECON conference starting the next day in Chandigarh for investors and startups. It sounded perfect, and by the time we had landed and left the airport, he had connected me with the management team for the conference and called a journalist to do a story on the project.
That’s how this project has been rolling. I barely have time to sit down and then the next thing is happening, almost without effort. Of course, I have to keep turning up, but in terms of trying to make things happen, there is very little trying going on. The happenings just keep happening. It feels like the Himalayan Rocket Stove has a momentum of its own.
Next morning, just before heading into the conference, I had a meeting with a man who had come from upper Kinnaur and who had bought the first of the new batch of stoves from the factory (he’d met Tanzin while I was away traveling). He was so excited by the stove he insisted on meeting me to say that just in Kinnaur he felt we could sell 10,000 of them. I asked him if he would like to be the distributor, of course he said yes.
So now we have people lined up to be distributors in Kinnaur, Spiti, Ladakh, Manali, Darjeeling and Nepal… and maybe also the NE states… all without trying. There is so much interest and curiosity about this stove that people are asking for it before we are even ready to supply it.
At the conference I was quite amazed to find that the startup scene in India is booming. Chandigarh is a very small town by Indian standards, and there were 700 people packed into the Hyatt networking like crazy. Startup reps like me, journalists, investors and speakers trying to get India to do business overseas… and as the only non-local (other than the few international speakers) mooching around I stood out in the crowd. Which made it was easy to get into conversations… everyone was curious to know what I’m doing there.
I put my name down for a 30 second speed-dating pitch event in a room full of investors, along with about 30 others, and managed to get noticed by 3 investors who wanted to know more. Half an hour later, I had pitched to them all independently and had the first one keen to set something up.
Just to go back a step… for those who have been following the journey so far, and wondering why I need investment in the first place?
The grant (and the crowdfunding money) that got me over there and allowed me to set up a test production facility, make a bunch of stoves, and get them into the field was spent. With the final funds I’d managed to set up the production relationship with a manufacturer in Chandigarh back in November, and pay for the first batch out of the factory. These 25 units were good, but not quite finished to my standards for retail, so rather than sell them (even though I could have easily with the existing demand) I opted to give these to the schools and nunneries as was the original plan. They work perfectly, but the factory is still learning how to make a perfectly finished product.
That leaves me needing to find the funds to keep the production going through the summer so as to have enough stock to supply the demand that will kick in around September onwards (people buy stoves at the end of summer). For that reason, funding is required to make enough stoves in advance of sales and orders. The goal is to make 2000 units in the next 12 months, with about 1000 ready when the season hits in September. Based on my projections, $100,000 would do the trick with a bit of surplus for unexpected costs to get us to cash positive later in the year.
So… back to the story…
Having successfully pitched the Himalayan Rocket Stove I now had a number of investors ready to partner so now it was a matter of getting all the paperwork in place. The only aspect to the whole project that seemed to have a go slow vibe was the actual incorporation of the company. Again the Indian govt changed the rules, and we had to resubmit the paperwork, which meant that on my last day in India I was still waiting to get the incorporation documents. They came through just as I was about to fly back to Australia.
Concurrent to all the excitement with the Himalayan Rocket Stove project has been the separate but also very exciting Smokeless Chulha (cook stove) project. This is something I personally feel very passionate about, given that just in India alone there are more than 1 million deaths a year due to Household Air Pollution.
Late last year Tanzin and I decided to set up a training program teaching people how to make the smokeless chulhas cheaply and easily in a not-for-profit capacity, with the wonderful support of Nitisha who is now coordinating the program. We are getting requests from far and wide, and with the small amount of money we raised on Chuffed, we have achieved a lot. Workshops have been run, TEDx gave me a platform to highlight the project, we are in talks to roll out a program across a whole state with govt support, we caught the attention of the head of the science department at IIT (Indian Institute of Technology) Delhi and we are about to collaborate with the WEE (Women’s Empowerment and Entrepreneurship) Foundation to reach 5000 women across India.
We are also looking to get this project funded so we can continue to expand the operations. The structure will be something like a not-for-profit trust held within the structure of the Himalayan Rocket Stove Pvt. Ltd. company. Advice from within India is that this is preferable to setting up a separate Not-for-profit organisation.
Meanwhile there have been multiple media articles pop up around the Smokeless Chulha and the Himalayan Rocket Stove projects, with a few still to be published. Links to these are being posted on the homepage as they come online.