Work Update

[Work Update]: Fuel Cambodia - From Stoves to Coconut Briquettes- July 2018

Cambodia has been full of challenges over these 4 amazing weeks our team has trekked here. We have gone out to many villages on hot, wet and humid days on bumpy roads, we have negotiated with many a translator and frequented many stores and vendors looking for supplies.  One of the biggest challenges however that we have faced, was our decision to switch from focusing on building affordable charcoal cook stoves to making charcoal briquettes.  

The decision to stop focusing on building a stove was a gradual one. At first we only saw a few NLS (New Lao Stove, our main competitor) around Siem Reap where we are based. However as we trekked further out into the surrounding villages, we slowly started to realise that everyone had one. By week 2, through empathising and gathering data we confirmed that nearly everyone in a village owned a NLS and most people in Siem Reap had a NLS as well.

After empathising with approximately 30 families in 6 villages around Siem Reap, it became very clear that the NLS was our biggest competitor. It costs $2-$5, lasts 2-3 years and is a fuel efficient stove that has currently been sold over 2 million times in Cambodia so far. All families we empathised with had at least one NLS. This is reflected in the FinScope Survey data that was sent to us by William Lee, showing that 74% of customers owned a lao stove (either traditional or new design). These stoves are both sold at the market and delivered to villages via truck, making them extremely established. Knowing also that the NLS has 31 manufacturing sites with a production capacity of 30000 stoves/month, our team knew we couldn’t compete with the NLS.

This roadblock presented a great opportunity for PEV Fuel Cambodia to pivot into evaluation of alternative fuel sources; such as bio-fuel briquettes. The NLS provides a cooking vessel for which these fuels can be designed and tested and potentially sold alongside, especially since it is an already well established market. Since the NLS is owned by almost every rural family, this pivot represents an opportunity to design a more sustainable and cheaper fuel source that is tailored perfectly to the stove design. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Trying to push a stove that will be slightly more efficient and significantly more expensive is risky and offers minimal social benefit to customers. It is believed we will be able to produce a cleaner solid fuel source from agricultural waste (coconut husks is our initial target).

We came to Cambodia to chew bubble gum and build stoves. However you have to adapt to the environment you are in and what you intend to do and what you can do are two very different things. Changing has been for the better though we believe. We already have made our first coconut briquette prototypes. The villagers we have showed them to so far have been very happy with how they work and how long they can burn for. We are proud that we have laid the ground work for the next Cambodia fuel team to continue our coconut briquette project and potentially turn it into a viable social enterprise that improves the life of all Cambodians in and around Siem Reap. The current fuel team is eager to see how our briquettes will be improved on and change over time.

edited on 6th September 2018, 00:09 by Justin Hakeem

Jess Riley 9 months ago

Status label added: Work Update

Reply 1

Tim Tsiflidis 9 months ago

Even though you had an established competitor,you guys still pushed through which shows great determination..Was there any contact between PEV and NLS? Consider how scalable your actual idea is. Maybe consider a potential partnership with them in the future since during the wet season the briquettes would be a good candidate to be the fuel of the locals rocket stove.

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Mitchell Lew 8 months ago

Thanks Tim. You're absolutely on the money. We have been in contact with Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise (SGFE) which is sponsored by the same company that set up the NLS. We've communicated through emails and calls, we are unable to organise a meeting during the time we are in country but have established a good relationship and they are happy to meet with us in December. A potential partnership is definitely a pathway worth considering.

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Nic Makram 8 months ago

Hey guys,
Awesome to see you stuck with it and were able to pivot so smoothly after discovering the incredible presence of NLS in Cambodia! I've got a few questions for you just to see what your future actions are on these alternative fuel sources. I don't expect you to have the answers to a lot of these questions, but just want to see if you've done any preliminary research into these areas:

1. What is the current fuel source used for these NLS stoves? Assuming it is just standard firewood, what is the sort of access/willingness of those who own the stoves to gather this firewood? My key question here is to identify whether there is actually a want/need for these alternative fuel sources.

2. Assuming you follow the route of coconut husks as a fuel source, I can see a few things you would need to find out in order to claim this as a viable pathway for the project:
a. What are the actual social benefits of having this as an alternative fuel source? Again, assuming firewood is the current fuel source, what pain point are you addressing? e.g. is it more efficient, does it last longer, are there any health benefits? If testing were needed to be conducted, is this something that could be done in Cambodia, or would it need to be done elsewhere such as Australia?
b. Also, in order to make this a sustainable business, you would need to make a profit of some sort on the sales of the briquettes. Again, assuming a current fuel source of gathered firewood (which I would imagine is free, or at least not hugely expensive?), you would need to have a fairly low price-point on the briquettes. I can imagine the briquettes are fairly labour intensive to make, so how would you balance these costs of labour with the revenue of the briquette sales.
c. Is there anyone else in this space in Cambodia already? What is the sort of competition present in terms of alternative fuel sources?

These are the main focuses I can see for this project moving forward. Again, I in no way expect you to have concrete answers for any of these points, but am curious to see how much you have looked into this in the short time since you've pivoted. Hope final week of project is treating you guys well!

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John Schinella 8 months ago

Hi Nic,

Thanks for your reply, firstly the current fuel for the NLS is charcoal, mainly sourced from wood which is a major cause of deforestation in Cambodia. However sometimes people may use wood which they pick up themselves or buy in large 20-30kg bags from market or a tuk tuk.

The social benefits of making coconut charcoal briquettes from coconut husks would be a reduction in coconut waste in and around Siem Reap. Also it is a sustainable and renewable fuel source and would not lead to more deforestation as wood for charcoal currently does. As for the people who buy our briquettes, they would have an alternative, cleaner burning briquette which we hope to sell at a lower price. Testing of our briquette can be done in both Cambodia and Australia.

Most people use charcoal as a cooking source rather than wood which can be too big to fit in a stove most of the time. The briquettes would have to be equal to or less in price than current charcoal and do a better or similar job. So far in our prototyping stages of testing our briquette, most materials can be sourced for free, except for the briquette press. Over time we hope to create processes and larger presses to reduce labour and time and hence cost.

Sustainable Green Fuel Enterprise currently are an established coconut briquette business that operates in Phnom Pen. This is our largest competitor but they do not have any major operations in the area of or around Siem Reap.

Thank you for your questions,

Reply 1

Mitchell Lew 8 months ago

This is really great John.

Only one point I would add as far as viability of the briquettes; these briquettes have the potential to be easier to light and be longer lasting due to density. These are two pain points we have found and this allows for reduced wood and smoke in lighting and reduced total fuel use as they burn for longer.

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John Schinella 8 months ago

Pivot Document for Fuel PEV Cambodia

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