Pitch Perfect: Fostering Local Talent Makes Clean Cookstoves More Popular

By Jonathan Cedar

It’s nearing dusk in Baripada, a small town in the eastern state of Orissa, India. Colorful concrete buildings line a dirt road, and as families walk briskly closing out their daily errands, a man appears. He enters a clearing, carrying a shiny object in his right hand. He walks with the air of a cowboy, but instead of spurs and a vest, he’s wearing a grey polo neatly tucked into tapered jeans paired with sensible running shoes. Don’t let the outfit fool you: This man is larger than life. This is Himanshu, the Magician.

Himanshu’s magic has evolved over the past few years, from sleights of hand performances to a more daunting feat: turning fire into electricity. This time around, it’s no illusion – it’s simply a matter of physics. But Himanshu’s job remains the same: make them believe.

Himanshu is now a stove salesman for BioLite, a social enterprise that manufactures the HomeStove. This wood-burning cookstove utilizes advanced combustion to burn 50 percent less wood than a typical open cooking fire and reduces toxic emissions by 90 percent, all while producing usable electricity to charge phones and lights. For the three billion people who still cook on smoky open flames every day, this product has the potential to transform households. But for the transformation to take place, the stove needs to be widely adopted. And for this to happen, households need to understand how it works, why it’s different from their current fire, and why it will make their lives better. And in this remote part of India, Himanshu is the best man for the job.

Himanshu sets his shiny HomeStove in the middle of a small crowd, and gestures for others to come closer, to see his demonstration. His voice booms: “All of us have homemade chulhas [mud stoves] at home – but today, I will show you something new, something innovative … ”

The crowd grows as cyclists hop off their bikes, curious about the circle of people huddled around this man. He points to one of the women in attendance: “Are you tired of smoke filling your home each time you cook? What if I told you there was a stove that cooks without producing any smoke?” He nudges the man next to him: “What if that same appliance saved you money on fuel and gave you access to electricity in your home? I have it right here. This is the HomeStove. And today I’ll use it to make you some tea and charge your phone.”

The crowd is smiling, some of them even laughing.

Himanshu requests a volunteer to join him near the stove. A few young men step forward, he picks one and together they jump on top of the stove. “A stove that two people can stand on will not fail you in the kitchen.” The volunteer steps off and Himanshu wastes no time placing a few small sticks inside the stove. Himanshu pulls out a matchbook, strikes a single match and flicks it a few feet through the air. He watches as it lands in the stove’s chamber and ignites. “Easy as that.”

Two men push to the front, phones in hand, and within seconds they are shouting to their friends back in the crowd, “IT WORKS.” Excited chatter explodes among the audience but Himanshu quickly breaks through with his confident voice, bringing people back to focus, reiterating the health benefits of a smokeless stove that uses any locally-available biomass and prepares food that tastes as delicious as a traditional fire. He explains that the HomeStove will save so much fuel that it pays for itself in less than a year, and the upside to having on-demand electricity in the home. As the fire dies down, the shape of the crowd changes. No longer a cluster, it morphs into a line: a line of new customers eager to find out from Himanshu how they can get their hands on a HomeStove.

Welcome to the perfect pitch

In lieu of digital ads, online shops, and displays you might find at large retail chains here in the United States, BioLite employs Himanshu and 39 other tenacious local sales agents who can captivate a crowd with in-person demonstrations, a highly effective tool for explaining a new and fairly complex product in rural, remote markets. Himanshu’s performance feels effortless on the surface, but it’s the result of his hard work and constant refinement. His perfect pitch boils down to four key elements:

  1. Trust

Himanshu was born and raised in Mayurbhanj, the district he manages, which is helpful when he has to introduce the HomeStove to its residents. His customers are his neighbors and friends. He casually describes circumstances that accurately reflect their and his daily life; he speaks with a local accent; he references his own experience learning to use the stove. Discovering BioLite from someone the crowd feels comfortable questioning or relating to helps establish a critical baseline of trust. It is one of the many reasons building local sales teams is at the core of BioLite’s emerging markets operations.

  1. Mind-reading

Okay, Himanshu is a magician, not a mind reader, but when you watch his demo it’s hard to distinguish between the two. His previous experience as a performer taught him a crucial sales skill: anticipating an audience’s concerns and proactively addressing them before skepticism takes hold. Himanshu is like a walking FAQ, delivering useful, relevant information that assuage concerns and, above all, showing that this product was intentionally designed to fit into the audience’s daily lives.

  1. Showmanship: Seeing is believing

Himanshu has no trouble drawing a crowd who are in awe watching the stove turn fire into electricity. However, keeping that attention is a struggle for any performer. Himanshu knows that lecturing a crowd, spitting off too many technical facts is a surefire way to bore people. To really convince them, they need to see what he’s promising. Lighting a stove with a flying match, hopping on stoves, serving steaming cups of chai, charging phones with fire. These are just a few of the tricks that Himanshu keeps up his sleeve to get his message across effectively. What would you remember more: Himanshu telling you that the stove is highly durable and can withstand the wear and tear of daily use or Himanshu hopping on top of the stove with a stranger in his arms? His entertainment is packed with information, but delivered in high-energy actions that are captivating and show more than they tell. To the audience, they didn’t sit through a sales pitch – they got a phone charge and a show.

  1. Opportunity and urgency

Himanshu always concludes his pitch by painting a picture of opportunity. “Imagine cooking over a stove with no smoke filling the air. No more coughing, no more stinging eyes. Imagine what you’ll do with the extra time or money now that you don’t need to collect or purchase as much wood. Imagine if you could plug a bright light at night instead of spending money on dirty kerosene. This stove can change your life today.”

Himanshu can’t give his pitch about a lifesaving product and let people know they can have one in a few weeks. They need it now. After all, there’s nothing worse than getting excited about a product and finding it’s out of stock or too expensive. The urgency of Himanshu’s pitch doesn’t work unless there is product on hand and customers can purchase it on the spot.

Enter the MFIs

Microfinance institutions (MFIs) enable low-income households to afford highly valuable home investments. This can mean small lines of credit to start a business or in our case, a loan to transform their home with a HomeStove. Customers visit their loan offices regularly to take out loans or make payments. Himanshu, along with each HomeStove salesman, works with a local MFI branch to ensure that demonstrations can take place near or at these branches, lending instant credibility to the pitch. At the end of a perfect pitch, the audience has a clear path to purchase and bring this stove into their home.

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From Orissa, India to Kampala, Uganda, many of our team members have been inspired by Himanshu’s approach, but they also put their own personal twist on the pitch. Prem in India creates a Bollywood-like entrance on his motorbike; Abacha in Uganda uses contagious humor to keep the crowd laughing; Emma in Uganda speaks passionately about his doing this not only for his mom’s health, but for everyone’s mom. With each personalized pitch, an unknown appliance becomes a desirable, affordable, life-enhancing solution for some of the world’s poorest households.

Maybe it is magic, after all.

Stay tuned for Chapter 7 of The Road To Impact where we explore the economics of ownership and what consumer financing looks like in emerging markets.

Images courtesy of BioLite

Jonathan Cedar is CEO and co-founder of BioLite, a social enterprise that develops and manufactures clean, affordable energy systems for off-grid communities around the world. This article is part of BioLite’s The Road To Impact series which takes an in-depth look at their work in emerging markets.

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