So… here we are in the middle of the Himalayan winter and it’s time for an update. After 4 months of intensive on the ground work last year (mid-June through to mid-October) Chetana and I came back to Australia quite exhausted, but feeling we had done everything we possibly could to get both the administrative and production aspects of the company set up and running. We left the day to day operations of the company in the hands of our team, while we continued to monitor and participate from our base in Byron Bay.
WhatsApp is our main channel of direct communication as it gives us immediate access to each of the team members via voice and text, and the ability to send images and video as required. Email is the next level of communications where we record the important administrative conversations, and Dropbox is our filing cabinet where all the paperwork (of which there is an abundance) gets filed for our legal teams and us to access.
Chetana, in her role as the CFO (Chief Financial Officer), thought she would be required on the ground in India for about 3 weeks to get the company compliance set up. After 3 months in Chandigarh, endless administrative hurdles and a dose of Dengue Fever, she had had enough and we booked our return. The vast majority was achieved and the rest of the details we are managing from here in Australia.
Doing business in India is an interesting experience. On the one hand, it has incredibly arcane and complex administrative processes inherited from several centuries of English rule. On the other hand, the country is in the process of modernising, introducing GST, changing paper based systems to web based ones… all very rapidly and to the point where it seems that no one really knows what is going on.
While Chetana was going quietly mad at her desk 10 hours a day, I was working with the team and the factory owning partner trying to get our stove transformed from a prototype into a slick production item that was consistently awesome. Fortunately, we had on our team a fastidious English engineer (known as ‘G’) who was like a terrier with a bone. He knew what was possible… he knew what we wanted to achieve… and he was not satisfied with what he was seeing almost every day.
G spent countless hours, time and again with the workers on the factory floor, the computer operators, the supervisors, the floor manager, the CNC operators… trying to get a consistent set of parts from the factory that we could assemble with our own staff. This involved getting 25 pieces, many with complex cuts and folds, to line up with the 85 holes through which we threaded 6mm hex head bolts to hold it all together.
On paper, getting everything to line up using CNC (computer controlled) machines is not that hard… but taking into account Indian conditions it felt like trying to thread a needle, blindfolded, with our hands tied behind our backs. As an example… our design gets programmed on a computer terminal (the only one that has the correct software) which previously had connected directly to the CNC machine. Rats ate through the cables years ago, and rather than fix the cable, they now use a USB stick to transfer the files to another terminal where a different operator makes adjustments to the design based on his expertise. Then it goes to a third operator who takes the USB stick and checks the design and adjusts for the tools that he has on hand, rather than the ones that may have been originally set on the first or second terminal. (The CNC machine has a large palette of stamping tools, so if the 30x30mm die is not sharp, the machine operator might make an executive decision to swap that for a 25x25mm die).
The end result, on more occasions than I can count, was what we call in Australia “a dog’s breakfast”. As a result, the process of sampling took about month longer than scheduled, and then when we finally gave the go ahead for the first batch of 100 sets in September, it took us a full month to go over every part (25 parts x 100 sets) to get them all to line up and fit together.
We were then 2 months behind schedule… online orders were coming in, and the window of opportunity for getting stock to Ladakh was getting smaller, as the road closes each year at the end of October due to winter snow on the passes.
We persevered… we got the first batch assembled and packed, and sent up 56 stoves to Leh with the rest going to Manali and local regions. Since then we have ordered 3 more batches of stoves from the factory (with each batch getting significantly better), and we are now assembling Batch 4 in our warehouse.
Sales were initially strong as we had built up quite a demand from our social media and word of mouth presence. Stoves went out to Kinnaur Valley, a few to Spiti, many to Manali and 86 made it up to Ladakh before the road finally closed. In total we have sold around 200 stoves, have about 100 in stock in Leh, Manali and Baddi and have another 100 currently being assembled.
Feedback has started to come back in from our early adopters and generally it is very good. There has been some confusion about the lighting sequence as it is counter-intuitive and the instructions are still only in English ( I have put out numerous requests for a Hindi translation, but still we are waiting).
There have been a few niggles… such as the rear exhaust flap sticking when it gets hot, so the boys on the ground have been going around making adjustments as necessary. The hot plates originally went out without a hook in the middle, just a slot on the edge to lift out. Now we have a specially made machine that puts a dimple in the middle of the round plate, and we weld in a small bar to make it easier to lift out. We will offer these upgraded plates to our existing customers free of change on a swap basis.
Due to the time it took to get the production flow for the Eco1 model worked out, we have yet to get our add-ons (water box and oven box options) or larger stove models onto the market. We now have a sample of the Eco3 stove (32” high) and are working on the Eco2 stove (26” high) to complement the Eco1 (at 18” high).
I am heading back to India on Monday and will be in the factory next week looking at the new models, talking to new distributors, and taking samples up to Manali for cold weather testing. After that I will fly up to Leh for some extreme cold weather testing (minus 20 these days) and in particular to see for myself the stoves in homes to get a real sense of their value and their shortcomings. This is our MVP (minimum viable product) and as such, we expect it will require improvements. However, now that we have 2 seasons of cold weather testing, we are getting much better at assessing the issues and adjusting to suit the requirements of Himalayan family homes.
I will also be collecting a library of video and images to use for making instructional videos in various languages to assist in teaching users about lighting and optimal use of the stove. It has a few levers and airflow options, so getting the best economy takes a bit of learning.
Finally… I will be continuing a conversation that started in June last year when Chetana and I were invited to Bhutan to explore options for the Himalayan Rocket Stove there. I previously wrote about that trip here (https://himalayanrocketstove.com/hrs-update-bhutan-visit-june-2017 ), and what has emerged since is the idea that although Bhutan is too small a market to justify a factory for domestic usage… it may be suitable for setting up a factory for international exports.
Based on the successes so far and the growing interest for these stoves in other parts of the world, we are now looking to raise $3 million AUD, build our own factory in Bhutan with state of the art CNC machines and make stoves at a quality we feel happy to send anywhere in the world. The Bhutanese Government are supportive of the idea and have offered us land and favourable conditions to locate our business there.
The factors that support this option are the relative ease of doing business in Bhutan, the ability to have full control over our own factory, access to a dry port (where we can effectively “ship” our products from Bhutan without needing to enter India from a customs perspective) and the overall brand cohesion of being a social enterprise with ecological and social benefits being based in a country that has proclaimed these qualities as part of its Gross National Happiness ethos.
We are now looking for the right financial partner aligned to the Himalayan Rocket Stove vision to support us scale and meet the growing international demand for our stoves. Stay tuned, I’ll do another update late Feb after this current trip.