Barriers To Adoption

Read about the obstacles that you need to overcome.

Many of the social products being marketed today have been around for decades. The improved cookstove was first introduced in India in the 1940s. Water filter systems have been around since before the Roman empire. So why, despite the efforts of non-profits and government institutions, hasn’t there been greater usage of these products? Why haven’t we reached the “tipping point” for mass adoption?

As we have seen, some products are readily adopted by the poor (Coca-Cola, cell phones), while others have greater obstacles to overcome. Not all bottom of the pyramid products are created equally, and it can be especially challenging when trying to sell a new product concept in an old product category. Today we take one social product, the fuel-efficient cookstove, and try to understand the major barriers to adoption and long-term sustained use.

“Designing stoves is far more complicated than many people think. You need good technical design to achieve high efficiency and low emissions, and it must be cheap to produce. But above all the cook has to like it – a stove won’t help the cook or the environment if it’s left to gather dust in a corner”

– Dr. Anne Wheldon, Technical Director of the Ashden Awards


Traditional cooking and heating is done over a “three stone” fire, where wood in inserted between the stones and a pot is placed on top of the stones. This cooking method has very low energy efficiencies (5-10%) as the majority of heat is not transferred to the pot, but instead lost to the environment.


An improved cookstove can be used with either charcoal, wood, or biomass briquettes. The JikoPoa, featured above, is a wood burning cookstove designed by Paradigm Project


BARRIER 1 • Overemphasis on technology, Under emphasis on the user

Improved Patsari stove from Aug 2007, with tortilla cooking surface. Photo Credit: The Maya Village Project

The first cookstove projects were focused on good designs from an engineering and designer perspective. Cookstoves were designed in modern labs with advanced testing equipment and only brought to the field at the very end of the product development lifecycle. Naturally, being designed without input from real users throughout the process resulted in products that were seemingly effective, but could not withstand the harsh conditions in the field (e.g. dust, wind, wood of varying size, etc.) or were ill-suited for actual cooking practices of the users. One study in Mexico found that 50% of women had abandoned their improved Patsari stove in favor of their older, more dangerous stove. It was only after the designers and engineers collaborated with users to improve the design that 70% of families began to use the stoves on a regular basis.

To read more about how to design products using a human-centered approach,

BARRIER 2 • Products that require a lifestyle change

Cooking touches an entire lifestyle, which can include gathering wood with other women (a social activity) to cooking traditional recipes passed through the generations. While changes to lifestyle may bring significant benefits, such as the ability to replace wood gathering with income-generating activities, these changes are not undertaken lightly. It can be difficult for women to adjust their cooking methods to a new device, and it can be hard on the husband and family as the food may taste different.

Photo Credit: Under the Sun

or example, an oft-quoted failure is the solar cooker which uses energy from the sun to cook food. The solar cooker requires a complete overhaul in lifestyle: only particular dishes can be cooked in these devices; they take several hours to cook; women need to rise early to start cooking; and if it is cloudy, even after hours, the food may not be ready. For all of these reasons, it is clear that in some situations the benefits of solar cooking (free fuel) cannot outweigh the inconveniences to the user.

There is also important traditional, cultural, and spiritual significance around cooking. Among the Baganda in the central region of Uganda, the three stones of the stove are closely linked to marriage. If a husband removes the three stones out of the kitchen or fireplace, the act signifies a divorce. In eastern Uganda among the Iteso and Adhola tribes, the establishment of a stove is an important ceremony for a new couple. The stove is made by the mother-in-law and signifies acceptance of the new wife in the home and a blessing by the husband’s parents to their daughter-in-law. It is strongly believed that if a wife constructed her first stove herself, she would become unable to bear children. In light of these anecdotes, it is important to consider how introducing an entirely new way of cooking impacts the traditional culture.

The balance of power in the household is typically skewed towards the men. The husbands control the household spending for large purchases, while it is the woman who would most benefit from the improved cookstove. In rural communities, wood is also considered “free.” Its only cost is the amount of time and energy expended to gather it. Collecting wood is considered women’s work, so it is more difficult to justify the financial savings to men.

BARRIER 4 • Income variability

Social goods and services are generally targeted at the poorest levels of society, especially those living under $1 or $2 per day. While this dollar figure is often quoted, it misrepresents the unpredictability of household income. For subsistence farmers, income fluctuates with the season, with the majority coming in at the end of harvest. Positioning strong marketing efforts to drive sales during this time period may be more fruitful than promotions throughout the year. As well, rural and urban households are highly risk averse and though various saving mechanisms are often employed, the out-of-pocket cost is difficult to justify. Price is a huge barrier, and novel retail and financing contracts should be explored (such as teaming up with microfinance institutions) to enable smaller payments over a specified period of time.

BARRIER 5 • Negative marketing messaging

The primary message from social marketing campaigns tends towards avoidance. Use condoms, don’t get AIDS. Filter your water, avoid diarrhea. However, it is wrong to assume that the poor are not interested in aspirational messages related to a more modern way of living. Consider re-positioning your marketing message to be more positive and focused on the key benefit derived from the product. For example, improved cookstoves reduce the amount of household smoke from everyday cooking fires, which then results in fewer cases of respiratory illnesses and pneumonia. Campaigns touting the health benefits of cookstoves have not proved particularly successful; instead, campaigns with messages like “Buy an improved cookstove, save 50% on fuel from the very first day” have resonated more with target users. Tap into the real needs of your demographic and tailor an appropriate marketing message.

BARRIER 6 • Failure of past projects

In the 1970s, improved cookstoves were heavily promoted as a solution for avoiding deforestation. Many of those products, designed without user input (see barrier 1), were rejected by communities who preferred their traditional cooking methods. As a result, any new cookstove project is received with skepticism and mistrust. Understand the past experience that your target user has had with the product category, and realize that you cannot change what happened in the past. Instead, emphasize what’s new, different, and uniquely suited for your audience.

BARRIER 7 • Reliable distribution

Photo Credit: Will Hutchinson

Distribution is one of the biggest barriers to scaling sales of social goods and services. Risk-averse, low-income populations often require high-touch service to understand the product benefits and features. Without a steady distribution and servicing model, it is a challenge to serve this community of users. Read more about how large corporations distribute in developing countries, and what some innovative social enterprises are doing.


We’ve talked at length about the major barriers to adoption. Now let’s talk about the solutions. The following is a partial list of Do’s and Don’ts related to the marketing of your social good.


Focus on the early adopters in a particular village. Then expand out within that village, and from there, neighboring villages. To spread the message, try to bring along the early adopters from the first village as your spokesperson. The message is much more powerful when it comes from someone like them.


Obsess over mass market penetration. You have limited resources, and while the demographics of a village may seem similar (mainly farmers, similar population size, etc.), every village is different. Some communities are more open to new things, while some remain closed off. How does this community interact with other villages and cities, or are they relatively isolated? Who are the people of power and influence in this area, and what matters to them?


Incorporate community and individual feedback throughout the process to get the technology and design right, and to figure out what points are most salient for emphasis in a future social marketing campaign.


Forget to monitor throughout the process – at the very beginning, during the life of the project, and at the end. By nature, most people do not like to disagree with out-of-town visitors. Be aware that what people tell you may not be how they really feel, and try to come up with strategies to get around this.


Learn from other entrepreneurs in the field, in our section: Advice from the Field. And continue to read more about effective pricing, promotions, distribution, and product design strategies in our Toolkit.

Another great resource is EnterpriseWork’s two-pager on the top 10 tips for successfully scaling up cookstove programs. It’s available to download here.

End Notes

Barnes, Douglas et al. What Makes People Cook with Improved Biomass Stoves? A Comparative International Review of Stove Programs. World Bank Technical Paper #242, May 1994.

Bagabo, Samuel. Communicating Stove Innovations to Subsisting Communities in Uganda: Getting to the circle of influence. Integrated Rural Development Initiatives (IRDI), 2000.

Interview with David Levine.

Pearce, Fred. Stoking up a cookstove revolution: The secret weapon against poverty and climate change. Ashden Awards Report.

Slaski, Xander and Mark Thurber. Research Note: Cookstoves and Obstacles to Technology Adoption by the Poor. Working Paper #89, October 2009. Stanford Program on Energy and Sustainable Development.,_Slaski_Thurber,_Tech_adoption_framework_for_poor,_16Oct09.pdf