Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kyoto Prototype

On my last visit to Nairobi a few months ago I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a fascinating fellow by the name of Jon Bohmer. Jon is the founder of an energy solutions company called Kyoto that won a huge competition put out by the Financial Times (and another from Brit Insurance Designs of the Year) for their solar oven. Kyoto has high hopes for revolutionizing all Kenyan energy systems.

Jon's wife Neema is a well respected member of a Somali tribe in Kenya that has recently inherited a vast expanse of beautiful land in the Rift Valley. Their plans for this land are just as grand as the land itself. But before getting into the big picture ideas, Kyoto has been not-so-quietly offering up innovations for saving energy. Take a look for your self.

The question that is invariably asked about projects like this is: Do these products actually sell? For now the answer is still no. Jon explains that it is difficult to get people to change their habits especially with regard to everyday routines such as cooking, washing and lighting.

According to the WHO, 1.6 million women and children die each year from smoke inhalation. This does not come a surprise for people that have seen the way food is cooked. However, out of all the products the one with the least appeal is the solar oven. Despite its obvious health advantages, people just can't get with the idea that you can cook with the sun (when it is out) and would always rather see a flame or proper oven at work on their food. I suppose sometimes you'd rather spend the extra money to get what you like.

On thing Jon believes firmly, if incorrectly, is that he cannot give these things away for free. He argues that a free item that necessitates a change in behaviour, is not likely to be used, whereas a small investment of money obligates a small change of behaviour. I disagree. If people are fully aware of the financial and health related gains in a new product, they are just as likely to use it either way. Jessica Coen and Pascaline Dupas agree. They set up randomized trials in Kenya using bed nets to test this question. They found that free ones were just as likely to be used as ones that cost 3USD. Unfortunately this study is not open to the public but one using pregnant women as the sample is.

Whereas all of the smaller products can save people time, effort and money if they so choose, the bigger projects in the works promise structural change. As of very recently, Jon and his team can install an array of private, portable, affordable and easy to maintain solar powered appliances including solar water pumps, solar air conditioning, solar desalinization, and general solar electricity. In the areas of Kenya that get sun everyday these really work well, including the land he has married into! Their scope for energy production in the rift valley is huge. He says within two years they'll be up and running, providing Kenyans with cheap and reliable electricity! A recent study of medium sized firms in Africa found that electricity was a major constraint on growth.

Another project that seems a bit further off involves algae. According to Jon, algae can be used for cleaning and fertilizer, but most importantly algae is a great source of nutrients. He believes firmly that algae can be the source of food security for millions of poor East Africans and beyond. If energy/money saving solar ovens can't find demand among the poor, will edible algae?

Also in the works is a Kyoto Institute at Narok University, where the team hopes to disseminate the value of solar energy and other innovative energy solutions. Maybe he'll be able to convince a young troop of Kenyans that a little algae for breakfast is a good thing. Go Kyoto!


  1. Well one main reason I can't give them away for free is that I can't afford it... And I don't see any other donors who are interested in that model either. The government here in Kenya bought 500 units and gave them away for free in western Kenya. Many of these units soon popped up in stores being sold at quite high prices. It is impossible to set up an equitable distribution of free products, it is just a massive invitation to corruption. Things must have a value, otherwise the strongest will take these units and sell them to the weakest.

    1. Fair comment Jon! Thanks for stopping by :) I look forward to catching up next time in Nairobi.