Hi friends… it’s been a while between updates so there is a bit to report on. I’ll try to cover the main points and keep it kinda brief, but I’ve been known to ramble, so here’s a list of topics in case you want to skip ahead:
- India Trip
- New Products / Designs
- New Markets – EU Exports / Imports
- Domestic Market Reach
- Carbon Trading
- Vision and Future Plans
I managed to get over to the office recently (last October) for a month and made a couple of field trips to Spiti and Ladakh.
This was my first trip to India in 4 years and was timely and productive. It was great to meet the old team again as well as the new members. We now have about 20 full time staff members and some casuals in Ladakh who work for us through the winter period which is our sales season.
On the Spiti trip, Abhishek, Tenzin and I drove in and out via Manali through the newly completed Atul Tunnel that goes under Rohtung Pass, saving about 4 to 8 hours of mountainous driving time and which stays open all year, unlike the pass.
We spent time with Phuntsok in Tabo (an old friend from early trips to Tabo in 92, 94 and 96) who is now our dealer in the region. We caught up with various friends and users of our stoves including people at Tabo Monastery, Serkong School and the school at Munselling (who is our single largest customer to date with over 100 units installed).
I also met with Sonam Norbu who I met as a 7 year old monk on my first trip to Tabo in 1992 and sponsored from that time for many years. He is now married (having left the monastic order) with 2 kids and just finished building a home in his village of Poh. It was a particular delight for me to meet him after many years and to be able to offer him an Eco2 Rocket Stove as a house warming gift just as winter is coming on. (pics below)
Based on feedback from Munselling I came up with a new design for a smaller, simpler unit as we were driving back from Spiti. We dropped into our partner production facility in Baddi and left some sketches I’d made in a coffee shop that morning and managed to get a prototype delivered the next day.
I wish the design process was always so streamlined!
As a contrast, another product we are working on, the EcoMicro Rocket Stove, has taken over 4 years to get to almost production ready. It’s been held up by a number of factors, mainly Covid and the limitations on travel and also my attentions being elsewhere.
This is a variation on our usual products, being a cooking stove that offers the option of space heating, as opposed to our main line up of space heating units that offer the option of cooking.
The new design that got prototyped so promptly this trip has the working name of EcoThap, which is a reference to a local language word ‘Thap’, being a traditional wood fired heat box. The EcoThap is small and squat like its namesake and yet hides internally a horizontal rocket system with preheated airflows designed to improve combustion efficiency and heat output to the room. We can make these for much less cost (around half to a third of the cost of our smallest rocket stove, the EcoMini and although not AS efficient, it is still respectably more efficient than a traditional unit.
On the topic of new products in development, I’ll make a quick list of them all here as it can get confusing.
- EcoThap Jr (the junior) – New Model, prototyping phase, field trials underway
- EcoThap Sr (the elder) – New Model, design phase
- EcoMicro (aka EcoMini Jr) – New Model, prototyping phase
- EcoMax – New Model, prototyping phase, field trials underway
- Camp Cooker (aka Gaddi Chulha) – soft launch underway
- EcoMini – Current Model, approved for carbon credits, no changes
- Eco1 – Current Model, approved for carbon credits, upgrading to Mk3 in process
- Eco2 – Current Model, approved for carbon credits, upgrading to Mk3 in process
- Eco3 – Current Model, approved for carbon credits, upgrading to Mk3 in process
Our goal is to have all models ready for launch by Sept this year (2024) and in particular we are aiming to launch the EcoMicro sooner through the Indian summer as this product is targeting clean biomass cooking as its primary function, with optional space heating via a heatbox module that can added as needed. The market regions for this product are different to our typical market areas of high Himalayan cold climate regions where heating is a survival need through the winters.
In the case of the EcoMicro, we are looking at regions that have a period of uncomfortably cold weather for a few months where traditional chulha style cooking (open fires indoors) takes place. In these regions, households are known to close their normally open doors and windows to keep in heat from the fire, with the obvious increase in household air pollution as a result. The EcoMicro is a 2 pot improved cooking solution (with a single fire) that converts to a flued space heater with the addition of the heat-box module, whilst maintaining 2 pot cooking functionality.
The EcoMax mentioned above is designed as a heater of large spaces only, with no cooking functionality. We are currently field trialling a unit at Munselling School in Spiti Valley where they wanted something to heat their large examination halls. The unit must be performing well as they have now requested 2 more. I have personally been using a prototype of this unit in my home in Northern NSW for the last 2 winters and it has effectively doubled the heat output of the standard combustion heater which was initially in the space. It is effectively a heat trapping module on top of a conventional western styled combustion heater, and I have pondered the possibility of introducing this into western markets as a way of improving the efficiency and outputs of older heaters that predate modern emission standards. At this point I don’t have the bandwidth for this by myself but if someone is interested in taking this forward, let me know.
Similarly with the Camp Cooker, I was testing the market for this in Australia, branded under Eco Stoves Australia. I found there is interest for this, but not enough to justify my time and effort to do small scale with Australian manufacturing costs (about 4x on Indian costs).
I have now soft launched the model in India after a fair bit of testing and field trials, as the Gaddi Chulha (which means Shepherd Stove). I used it on field trials into Spiti and Ladakh and found it to be excellent for the kind of travel I like to do, and the local teams agreed that it would serve the kind of roaming mountain life of a Gaddhi, hence the name change for India.
We also see this could serve as an emergency response stove that is ideally suited for rapid deployment in critical situations where gas and electricity are not available. The units are fully collapsible, weighing around 2kg and can be easily assembled on site in minutes and used as an emergency cookstove with a small amount of finger sized sticks.
The next big evolution is with our core product range, the Eco1,2,3 Rocket Stoves where we are now prototyping versions that have an inbuilt oven in the front stepped section of the units. This will shift the emphasis a bit as it raises that lower front cooking area which was critical for early adoption by women who sit on the floor to cook. Habits are evolving and feedback has suggested that the additional functionality of an oven, combined with the improved functionality and lifespan of a unit with cast iron single level cookplate will be highly regarded. Hence the Mk3 versions is now planned to combine these factors as well with cast iron doors for the fire box and the oven and a possible transition from stainless steel rocket tubes to ceramic tubes, again for increased lifespan and performance.
New Markets / EU imports – exports
Finally, whilst on the topic of new products for the coming season, we are currently in talks with a European manufacturer of pellet heaters to supply high end units for the Indian market. This would be interesting for us from a number of levels. It increases the range of units we can offer and in particular means we can introduce waste biomass pellets with a proven technology at the top of the market.
Once this fuel supply chain is established, we can then design and launch variations of our own pellet stoves at increasingly lower price points to reach deeper into the market.
Waste biomass fuel has been a tough nut to crack in India but remains the goal for us, as it perfectly targets our core goal of reducing deforestation through over harvesting of timber for fuel. In combination with this import relationship we are also looking at exporting to Europe combined with an optional joint venture to share technology to design something that works for both markets. Talks are ongoing.
In addition to this we are also in talks with another established European company based in Austria that has manufacturing and storage facilities in Turkey and distribution throughout Europe. A pallet of sample stoves is about to head out the door towards Istambul (the route is now going to be the long way round) and is our first actual foray into establishing a commercial supply chain to Europe.
We are in particular interested in reaching the cold climate regions around the Black Sea (Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan) as well as up towards Estonia and across to Serbia, Hungary and Slovakia. Apparently there are village regions without power that rely on biomass for heating and cooking and of course there are the devastated areas of Ukraine and Russia where we would like to be able to offer solutions on a humanitarian basis.
Domestic Market Reach
Back in India, we have been extending our reach into more remote areas of:
- Ladakh (including Zanskar, Nubra, Changtang and Kargil)
- Himachal Pradesh (including Pangi and other remote valleys)
- North East States with particular focus on the remote and high altitude regions of Arunachal Pradesh as well as Sikkim and other NE states
These areas are particularly challenging as the road access is poor and communications are very patchy, sometimes nil.
Last season we sent a large amount of units to the NE region and many of these are now sitting with dealers in such remote areas that we have now having to send sales team members from our head office to go and find out what’s happening in the field, as the communications are so bad. This has been a particularly challenging aspect of trying to scale into the remote areas that desperately need our stoves.
The season has also been strangely warm, which has impacted sales to some degree. It is expected that climate will continue to become more erratic over time, and that seasonal weather patterns can be both warmer and cooler than usually expected.
Since founding and launching to market in 2017, we have managed to establish Himalayan Rocket Stove as the leading supplier of clean heating solutions for the Himalayas with a proven technology and over 12000 customers. With a 2 year unconditional warranty, I could count the number of returns on one hand. Word of mouth is our main marketing tool and we have a service team dedicated to making sure our customers are satisfied in an ongoing way.
To supplement this, we have recently employed a marketing firm to support our efforts to reach more people and this has been productive with a distinct boost in the quality of the content going up on our social media platforms (FB and Insta).
Since we began the process of being audited for trading carbon, we have been through countless steps to validate and confirm the actual on the ground benefits to our users, and the real measurable impact our stoves are having in terms of fuel savings and pollution reduction. The Gold Standard process is necessarily tough, and so it should be. To get an accreditation with them as part of our carbon trading arrangement with South Pole has been a huge effort and a credit to the team.
The numbers are in the final stages of approval, and it looks like we are firming up with 3 tons equivalent per unit per year for 10 to 20 years. We have committed to reinvest surplus funds raised via Carbon Trading towards further product innovation and bringing down the cost of our lower priced units to make them as affordable as possible to low income households.
We currently have an advance from South Pole which has allowed us to make and sell 5000 EcoMini stoves at cost price. This is now in the final stages of implementation with many of these units now in the remote parts of the NE regions I mentioned above.
On another note, we are also in the final stages of closing the ESOP (employee share option program) for the first 6 years of the company’s life (2017 to 2023). Any employee that served with HRS for 12 months or more becomes eligible for share options, pro rata calculated on salary and time served. For this I set aside a pool of 10% company shares from my own stake.
I have another 10% set aside for the following 6 years. It’s an important part of my vision that the team who work so hard to bring this project to life also have a stake in the company.
This will bring us up to 2030 by which time I envision Himalayan Rocket Stove will be a global leader in providing clean combustion solutions to a world where the efficient use of biomass fuels will be a part of an overall energy strategy as we transition away from an over reliance on fossil energy towards more sustainable ways of living.
There is an additional pool of 10% which has been set aside for the right investor at the right time, a partner who will support us in our vision of creating sustainable solutions for human habitat on our precious planet.
With the above being a brief snapshot of the various parts at play, I hope that gives an indication of some of the work going on with HRS. I am particularly happy with the progress of the new product development and the possibility to expand into Europe, as well as getting more affordable options onto the Indian market.
I would say that HRS has stabilised now in terms of its core business and the next 5-6 years is the period of growth and maturity. Thank you to everyone who has supported us on this journey so far. It’s been a challenging and rewarding process, and I’m very excited about what is yet to come.
If you would like to know more about any particular aspect, or have any questions at all, we are an open book and I will be happy to connect and share more as requested.
Reach me on russell@himalayanrocketstove.