This smoke-filled kitchen in rural KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, is a common scene throughout Africa. People can cook outdoors to avoid the smoke, but during winter they use the smoke to heat their houses and during the rainy season it’s not practical. As a result, kitchens all over the world continue to fill with smoke from cooking with solid fuels. Mothers spend can spend up to 8 hours a day in such environments, and disease resulting from indoor air pollution is the #1 killer of children under 5.

People have tried to tackle this problem in three different ways: source interventions (improved stoves, cleaner fuels), improved living environments (smoke hoods, chimneys), or changes in user behavior. Source interventions seem to get the most attention.

Cleaner fuels require a constant financial investment and supply, thus making improved stoves the focus of many organizations. As always, the biggest barrier faced is dissemination. Hestian Innovation, a company based in Lilongwe, seems to have found one possible solution.

Most organizations produce their products at a centralized location. Transporting these products to a number of rural areas can then be difficult and expensive. Hestian Innovation, on the other hand, has adopted a decentralized production model.

In their model, the company goes into the rural areas and identifies potential production centers for their clay stove. They provide seed capital, training, and quality monitoring. Their employees (all women) then build the entire product in their villages and sell directly to the end user. (Note: all materials must be locally available.) A certain percentage of the profit goes to the production center for more materials, and the women take a commission on every product they sell, motivating them to market and sell their stoves. Once the center is up and running, Hestian Innovation steps back to a monitoring and evaluation role and moves on to a new site.

Importing cheap mass-produced products from China may save on manufacturing costs, but only if you have a solid distribution network – a challenge that even the most robust organizations continue to face. Decentralized production is one approach to solving this challenge.