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A $5 solar stove for rural poor, paid for by polluters

The Kyoto Box, an award-winning solar cooker made of cardboard, aims to reach millions for free with the help of the carbon credit market.

It looks so simple, and that's the key innovation.

The Kyoto Box consists of two cardboard boxes, one inside the other. The inner box is painted black to absorb sunlight, and the heat is trapped with a transparent acrylic lid. Captured solar energy heats up the air in the box enough to boil food and water and bake, but the stove is not powerful enough to fry food.

A prototype of the award-winning Kyoto Box solar cooker. Kyoto Energy

The invention received the $75,000 FT Climate Change Challenge award last week. The competition, run by Forum for the Future with The Financial Times and Hewlett-Packard, had nearly 300 entries, which were judged on their contribution to tackling climate change.

"It feels good. It was the only finalist that was a solution for developing countries," Kyoto Energy CEO Jan Bohmer, a Norwegian-born entrepreneur based in Kenya, told CNET News during a call on a crackling phone line from Nairobi.

The invention was inspired by the 240-year-old "hot box," a heat catcher by Swiss inventor Horace de Sausseur, and it could solve problems plaguing rural areas of developing countries.

Deforestation is a huge problem in Africa, note the inventors of the Kyoto Box, who hope the stove could halve firewood use, saving trees and preventing carbon emissions. The Kyoto Box is targeted at people who currently use firewood, a fuel that takes the rural poor hours of hard labor per day to collect, and can cause health problems when the fumes from the often primitive stoves are breathed in the home.

Norwegian inventor and Kyoto Energy CEO Jan Bohmer is based in Nairobi, Kenya. Kyoto Energy

While the design of the stove and manufacturing is simple, the business model is advanced. The box costs just $5 to make, but the goal is that it will be given away for free. How? The cooker could be eligible for carbon credits, which could finance the production of the boxes.

They named the company Kyoto Energy because of the key role the Kyoto Protocol will play in lowering the cost.

In principle, carbon credits are part of a market for reducing greenhouse emissions. The company reducing its emissions gets credits to sell to those who emit more. Bundling the Kyoto Box with a solar-charged flashlight, a solar water bag, and an efficient turbo cooker to burn residues (in a package the company calls "Kyoto Family") can help each family save two tons of greenhouse gases per year could make it a freebie for the users.

The company explains its calculations: each ton of carbon credits is worth about 10 euros ($13). Two tons means 20 euros ($26) worth of credits per year per family. The cost of the Kyoto Family kit is 40 euros ($52), which means that if the family uses the kit for two years, it should be free, the company hopes.

Since receiving the prize, Kyoto Energy has received requests from 20 countries, from Guatemala to Cambodia, for trials. A plastic version of The Kyoto Box will go into production soon in a Malaysian factory. "The cardboard version was more of a test," Bohmer said. "It is the same thing made of recycled plastic bottles, but this one is more durable."

Kyoto Energy's goal is to reach 500 million households with its products. Bohmer wants his company to stay in the family, since kin have helped develop the products. He has a car and a house and says he doesn't need big profits. "I have used everything I have to do R&D," he said. "If I get more, I'll probably do more R&D. I am obsessed with finding solutions for problems."

For Bohmer, receiving the Climate Change Challenge award is an acknowledgement after years of trying to get support for his ideas. "I've had 200 application from governments and organizations rejected or ignored before this," he said.

But for the business model to work, the relatively new carbon trading system must continue to improve. Bohmer hopes the U.S. finally will join this carbon trading system, and recent signs suggest it might. The White House needs to offset its emissions from all their flying, Bohmer joked, adding that the president has a great opportunity to show the way: "President Obama can buy these carbon credits from his own grandmother here in Kenya."

Click on the video below to see the see the problems the Kyoto Box wants to solve.