I was just looking to see when I last wrote an update, and was surprised to see it was back in June. Wow… that went fast! So here’s a quick snapshot update on progress in India since then.
Firstly… COVID-19 hasn’t exactly gone away, but life in India is settling into a kind of acceptance of the new normal. Masks are required for most outings, and otherwise the lockdowns (in our regions) are generally over. There was a period where spot lockdowns were common, such as where cases would appear in a location, then that town / region would get various restrictions for a while. This was pertinent to us in that Baddi, the industrial town where we get most of our production done, was often a hotspot due to the influx of casual workers from other parts of India. Our base in India these days is a small town on the edge of the foothills called Parwanoo, and here the cases and hence restrictions have been minimal.
Our team is still taking all precautions and we have a security guard at the front door who monitors all visitors and makes sure anyone entering the building is signed in and wearing a mask. Other than this, our team has been healthy and safe and back at work since early July.
My big push this year was to introduce the new versions of the Eco Rocket Stove range (the Mark II versions) and we got very close, but the prototype to production process that I would normally oversee in person in India became too slow and too abstract for me to feel ok about giving the go ahead on this major revision of the product design. The season started, orders were coming in, and so we decided that this will just have to be the main casualty of the COVID period… our Mark II upgrade has been delayed, and we are back in production with the original range of 3 sizes of combustion heater, the Eco1, Eco2 and Eco3.
Meanwhile, parallel to this, we did manage to get the design finalised for a new product, the EcoMini Rocket Stove. This is a design variation on the existing range that is smaller, lighter, cheaper and… thanks to a revision on the internal airflow design… also HOTTER! We haven’t managed to get accurate thermal efficiency tests on any of our units as yet (we are in negotiations with a professor at IIT Delhi on this point) but anecdotally, the team is telling me it feels as hot as the Eco2 Rocket Stove (our mid-sized unit that is particularly effective at putting out the heat). From a price perspective, the Eco2 is selling at 22,000 INR and the EcoMini is launching for 14,000 INR.
Check the EcoMini Rocket Stove here: https://himalayanrocketstove.com/product/ecomini-rocket-stove/
We’ve gone into major production with the EcoMini in the last few weeks, with about 300 units already made and another 500 units in the pipeline this month. One of the other significant benefits of this smaller stove is a much bigger ashtray which is removable whilst the stove is on, which is one of the main design requests we have heard from our customers. This will be of particular interest to the high altitude communities who rely on animal dung rather than wood for fuel, due to the increased ash build up from dung fuels.
Investment with Social Alpha
On another significant note, the ink has barely dried on the final signatures for a funding round with an investment by the social impact group, Social Alpha ( https://www.socialalpha.org ), who will take a small stake and help us expand our reach. Through this partnership we are already working up a deal with another partner organisation that will involve hundreds of EcoMini units reaching lower income sector on a subsidised model. This has involved many months of negotiations and we are getting very close to bringing these deals together, thanks to tireless input by Nitisha, who has focussed her attention on business development this year.
Carbon Credits with South Pole
This has been a long process, but we are getting close and are apparently one of the few Indian companies to have successfully navigated the complex process of compliance with Gold Standard (a third party organisation that verifies the claims of carbon abatement through a very detailed analysis and customer feedback process). When this is up and running we will be able to use the proceeds from Carbon trading to further increase our ability to reach more people with low pollution heating and cooking solutions.
HRS Team Changes
Around the middle of the year our Sales Manager, Ajay decided to leave HRS to focus more on field work in the clean energy sector. He was with us for almost 2 years and was a vibrant part of our senior team. He has been replaced by Neetan who also comes from HP (like most of our team) and has quickly fit right in. We also were sad to say goodbye to Ms Vandna (our tireless Accounts Manager) who left us after 12 months to get married, and we welcome Ms Santosh to take her place. Ms Surekha who came on board late last year and who oversaw the fit-out of our Parwanoo showroom, office and warehouse, as well as managed our online marketing, also left earlier in the year to pursue her architecture career. We now have 3 women and 11 men on staff in India, with myself still managing to manage things from Australia and Chetana in an advisory role.
New Things in the Pipeline
In these last several months we managed to get several new concepts almost to final production readiness. This includes the Rapid Deployment Community Kitchen concept (which made it to field trials), as well as a low cost cookstove that can quickly be adapted to a small room heater (called the Eco Micro). The Community Kitchen project will get revisited when we come out of the northern winter season as a summer product that is more or less ready to go.
The Eco Micro will get trialled through the partner organisation we are working with on the EcoMini deal. This will be targeted at low income communities based in the Himalayan foothills between 500m and 1200m altitude. Not so high that they need especially high heat output devices (like the Eco Rocket Stoves), and yet high enough that some kind of winter heating is a requirement. The stoves will be useful all year round as efficient and smoke reduced 2 pot cookstoves (without flue), with the capacity to quickly adapt to a 2 pot cookstove with heat radiating box and external flue pipe. It’s a novel approach so we will test the market to see where this can work.
Whilst being “stuck” in Australia has been a hindrance in terms of being able to put my finishing touches on the new product designs as they come out of the factory, it has meant I’ve been able to expand up my thinking about what else is possible through the Rocket Man Designs workshop.
The waste incinerator is back on my drawing board, with a completely new design emerging out of pondering this problem for so long. I have conceptually solved one of the trickiest issues with the old design (waste choking the combustion process and dropping the combustion temperature) with a new concept that I am keen to build and test here in Australia.
Parallel to this project, my brother Michael and I are working on a range of remote sensors for comprehensive data analysis in the field, both for cookstoves and combustion heaters. There is a definite gap in the market here, so we are working on a sensor concept that will give us a broad range of data that will be useful for drafting policy, improving product design and assessing usage and compliance for such things as Carbon Credit schemes that fund cookstoves. This could stand alone as a marketable product line for RMD.
The clean cremator concept has taken a back seat to the waste incinerator at this stage, but is still on the books as a future product to develop. Various other tweaks and modular add-ons have been in testing, such as the pizza oven module which always raises a bit of attention. The hold up here has been finessing the design which usually uses purpose made ceramic tiles for the interior section.
A modular pellet feeder add-on for the Eco Rocket Stove range is also in development, with a new concept in testing now. We have been in dialogue with a couple of Indian professors who have contacted me to propose working together on integrating biomass waste into the fuel supply chain for cooking and heating. This is very much up our alley and we are working towards various partnerships that will allow us to fast track waste biomass (rice chaff in particular) pellets as a fuel source at a highly competitive price.
Rocket Man Designs in Australia
In response to local circumstances in Australia, I wrote up a grant proposal for a Rapid Response Community Kitchen for the Australian market. This is based on a towable box trailer with a range of rocket fired cooking options that fold out from the contained unit, included a double ended (pizza) oven with fold out stainless workbenches and cooktops. The kitchen is powered by a range of multi fuelled rocket stove cookers that are enclosed in the trailer when not in use, and get positioned for usage as needed.
Think about this as a kitchen for volunteer fire fighters (or any kind of emergency workers) that can be towed to remote locations and set up at short notice. It could also serve as a community pizza oven at the local sports clubs, etc. It has been listed as a finalist by Southern Cross Credit Union community grants here: https://www.sccu.com.au/community/community-grants/
Please check it out and vote if you feel so inspired!
In short… this has been a busy time for me (and the HRS team), and I feel grateful to have so many worthy projects to focus my attentions on. If you feel curious to know more about these projects, feel free to get in touch or leave a comment below.