Powering Life Off The Grid



When Jonathan Cedar and Alex Drummond decided to build a better campstove, little did they know they would be finding a solution for a much larger health, environmental, and economic challenge. What started as an afterhours project for two campers and product developers evolved into a full time business and line of outdoor products with a much larger global mission called Biolite.

Half the planet lives in “energy poverty”, lacking safe and reliable ways to cook, charge, and light their lives. Imagine having an open campfire burning in your home every day. Three billion people cook over smoky open fires, which is the cause of 4 million premature deaths annually – more than HIV, TB, and malaria combined. These emissions are also the world’s leading carbon pollutants and source of climate change. Tired of having their campstoves run out of gas, Jonathan and Alex simply wanted to design a campstove that didn’t rely on fossil fuels. What they discovered serendipitously was that the needs of families around the world living in energy poverty were very much aligned with those of outdoor enthusiasts.

Biolite founders Jonathan Cedar and Alex Drummond met at Smart Design in New York City where they quickly bonded over their interest in sustainable design. Cedar told Style of Sport in an interview last week, “It wasn’t meant to be business. It was just meant to be to be fun. Let’s make a stove that doesn’t use gas.”  Their concept was a portable wood-burning stove able to utilize its own thermal energy to improve combustion. Using the technology of thermoelectric panels – the same concept as solar panels but for heat – a fan could power combustion with the energy generated from the heat of the fire. A self-sustaining cycle was the result: burning wood generates heat; heat generates electricity; electricity powers the fan; fan stokes the fire and makes more heat. And so it goes. The electricity generated could charge personal devices too.



Thus was born the BioLite CampStove for the outdoor market, which would lead to the BioLite HomeStove for emerging markets. Targeting families living in energy poverty across India and Sub-Saharan Africa, the HomeStove is a large format wood-burning cookstove that cuts fuel consumption in half and reduces toxic emissions by 90% – all while charging mobile phones and an LED light. With demand for a similar larger stove in the outdoor market, BioLite BaseCamp would later launch in response to the HomeStove.

BioLite operates using a unique business model they call “Parallel Innovation” – developing core energy technologies and products unique to both the outdoor and emerging market customer. It is a form of Social Enterprise, bolstered by the merging of these two distinct audiences and their common need for “off-grid energy.”

According to Cedar, about 80% of Biolite revenue comes from the recreational market and about 20% from emerging markets. Profits from the recreational market fund product development across the two. Revenues from the outdoor markets are reinvested in building a commercially sustainable business that can bring safe and affordable energy to families living in energy poverty across India and Africa. The HomeStove is sold for $79 in these markets, as compared with $149 to recreational consumers, but Biolite’s goal is to design a product that delivers economic value to the consumer from money saved. Families are spending 30% of their income purchasing wood or charcoal for cooking, kerosene for lighting, or paying someone to charge their mobile phone. Biolite is also working with micro-financing to provide loans which can be paid back as those savings are realized.



From a health, environmental and economic standpoint, Biolite believes the ultimate opportunity for the company is in emerging markets. “We are passionate campers who believe we can use the outdoor market to help bootstrap global opportunity,” says Cedar. “The outdoor consumer is our anchor customer that keeps the lights on as we iterate our way to scalable success in emerging markets.” Biolite is using those profits to propel the overall scale of the business towards a place where they can eventually subsidize emerging markets.

Biolite products are in 75,000 homes in Africa, with 150,000 targeted by end of the year. In 2015 the company expanded beyond stoves into lighting with the launch of the NanoGrid system, and most recently the SolarHome 620. The SolarHome 620 is BioLite’s first cross-over product, simultaneously launching in the outdoor and emerging markets. A portable system of solar lighting, charging, and music that fits in a shoebox, it can turn any off-grid structure into an electrified home. Born out of two years of in-field research across western Kenya, SolarHome 620 is currently in use in more than 40,000 households across Sub-Saharan Africa, providing families with a safe and reliable alternative to dangerous and expensive kerosene

In asking what is next for Biolite and other products in the works, Cedar would not reveal specifics, but says the vision has always been to invent a whole generation of appliances that deliver energy to off-grid homes. He does hint that starting with cooking, lighting, and charging could lead to refrigeration and water purification as examples. The bigger picture however, is to affect change in the outdoor industry as a whole. Biolite’s mission is to create a business that is economically sustaining and inspires a generation of companies to think the about a social impact model that’s not just a byproduct of the company’s revenues. 



“Patagonia is a company that puts their value at the forefront of brand”, says Cedar. “They have done so much for the environment, education, and awareness. But at the end of the day, they are still a clothing company donating a fraction of their revenue, essentially a byproduct, back into doing the hard work of environmental change on the ground. Don’t get me wrong, I love Patagonia, and I don’t believe I would be running the business I am today without them as an example, but what I think we’re trying to do is form a different model. How do we build an economic model that prioritizes social impact? Hopefully we’re part of that next wave in outdoor industry leadership that thinks about how you build the engine of change rather than making change a limited byproduct. If we can lead the way and inspire the next generation, to me that’s the most exciting opportunity and a nice piece of heritage for the outdoor industry.”