Eco-Heat, the portable slow-cooker from Morocco

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Beyond its appearance, which resembles that of a large Maharaja hat or fancy pillow, the Eco-Heat isotherm bag is in fact an ingenious combination of technology and innovation.

It is a low-tech product, meaning an innovation based on simple, economical, and popular techniques. The device enables one to cook dishes using the principle of heat retention – without additional energy.

To achieve the desired outcome, it is enough for one to boil a dish for 20 minutes and then simply place it in the eco-bag for anywhere from 90 minutes to five hours.

Founded in September 2016, the young startup Eco-Heat (which bears the same name as its product) has already closed sales in Morocco and Senegal, in addition to reaching the semi-finals of two prestigious competitions: Enactus World Cup, and MIT EF Arab Startup Competition.

Wood and coal cooking, a risky practice

The startup’s three cofounders, Othmane Benhlima, Soumia Hasnaoui, and Imane Mekkaoui, students at the engineering college EHTP Casablanca, visited several rural Moroccan regions as part of the Enactus program, which accompanies university students as part of the implementation of their social entrepreneurship projects. That’s where the three came up with the idea of ​​Eco-Heat.

During their excursions in the countryside, they observed the proliferation of fumes from the cooking of meals. In Morocco, despite an electrification rate of around 99 percent in rural areas, electricity is mainly used for lighting. Because of its high cost, it is rarely used for other everyday activities – hence the heavy reliance on gas, wood, and coal.

According to WHO figures, 4.3 million people around the world die prematurely each year from diseases caused by domestic air pollution, much of which is due to the burning of solid fuel. Additionally, because of the time and effort expended in collecting and using these fuels, many women with home-making responsibilities are kept from engaging in productive activities, and even the schooling of children is affected. On the environmental front, carbon black and methane emitted from cooking foci are powerful pollutants that accelerate climate change.

It is in this context that the student team of EHTP Casablanca embarked on the Enactus program and forged its social mission. The team’s eco-simmer system saves its users 75 percent of the butane gas normally consumed and 55 percent of the wood and coal.

Big pumpkin or cushion, Eco-heat also attracts with its strange shape. (Images via Eco-Heat)

Optimization of an old technique

Eco-Heat technology is based on the thermodynamic principle of heat retention. "It is an ancestral technique that has been adopted by past generations,” cofounder Benhlima explained. “We used our engineering skills to develop and optimize product efficiency."

Elaborating on the science involved, Benhlima said: "After a mathematical elimination of the different quadratic forms, we retained the ellipsoidal form, which is much more effective in retaining heat. Its advantage is that it possesses two symmetrical hearths. This means that the heat is concentrated in two points instead of one, unlike other forms used by different products."

In order to fund their operations, the three cofounders relied on the support of several organizations. By participating in Ford programs, the OCP Group, Enactus Morocco, and Dare Inc, the startup raised close to 200,000 Moroccan dirhams (US$20,000).

To protect its innovation, the company initiated a patenting procedure with the Moroccan Office of Industrial and Commercial Property (OMPIC). Regarding health, the team had to make sure that the product was able to maintain the nutritional quality of the food during cooking. Tests carried out at the National Office for Food Safety (ONSSA) proved this to be the case.

Both cofounders, Othmane Benhlima and Soumia Hasnaoui, are giving a hand at the tailoring workshop.

A versatile product

The Eco-Heat team is keen on winning over ordinary people in both urban and rural regions, as well as travelers and campers.

"The average Moroccan consumer needs the product for two reasons: In urban areas, because he no longer has time to cook, and in rural areas, because he can no longer afford other alternatives such as gas, wood, or electric furnaces," Marwane Fachane says. Fachane worked with Eco-Heat during its incubation at Dare Inc., a social startup incubator based in Morocco’s capital, Rabat.

To turn its social mission into a success, the young team has drawn up a two-tiered pricing policy. Eco-Heat isotherm bags are billed at 350 dirhams (US$35) for urban clientele and 70 dirhams (US$7) for their rural counterparts.

Crucially, the bags keep the food warm or cold for up to five hours. Needless to say, this feature could prove handy for companies in the food and beverage industry.

Indeed, in the view of Bilal Baguennou, a restaurant contractor intrigued by Eco-Heat: "Eco-Heat is an innovative product that could be adapted to the catering sector and especially to the delivery segment. One of the major challenges of food delivery is the preservation and maintenance of products. The promise of thermal insulation of the Eco-Heat bag seems interesting to me and I will be ready to work with the team to adjust their bag to the delivery segment.”

Othmane Benhlima explains the Eco-Heat concept to the youth during Moroccan Solar Festival.

Building a sales force

So far, the startup has hired 11 employees and has a production capacity of 200 bags per month. It has already sold 150 units in Morocco and 130 in Senegal.

"Like any startup...the major challenge is to penetrate the market,” cofounder Benhlima notes. “We are therefore trying to establish sales contracts, supplier contracts, and partnerships to reach our customers in the most efficient way."

Fachane, who got a chance to observe Eco-Heat closely during its stint at Dare Inc., agreed: "Before you grow, the team needs to hon[e]...sales and user experience. This will enable them to capitalize on the real success of the product to make it known to all."

To grow in a balanced way, the startup intends to strengthen both its production capacity and its sales force.

"We intend to switch to a production of 1,000 bags per month by 2022,” said Eco-Heat cofounder Hasnaoui. “For distribution,” she continues, “we are developing a network of ambassadors in several cities that will be responsible for both promotion and distribution In their surroundings. These ambassadors already have their own networks of loyal customers, which makes communication even easier and more effective.”

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