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The Darfur Stoves Project: A Market Solution to Poverty

Tori Okner | Friday May 21st, 2010 | 5 Comments

Today, three billion people—nearly half the world’s population—burn coal, wood, dung, or compost to heat their homes and cook their food. In addition to the deforestation associated with open fire cooking, especially in regions of conflict, the need for fuel often leaves searchers vulnerable, exposing them to risk of attack.

This is particularly true in Darfur, where there are over two million displaced persons.

“Darfuri women must walk up to seven hours, three to five times per week, just to find a single tree…When women and girls spend extensive time outside of the camps, they become increasingly vulnerable to acts of violence,” according to the Darfur Stoves Project.

“As these events become more common, some women have decided to purchase wood from a middleman rather than search for it…The economic and social costs of firewood mean that as many as half of Darfur families in displaced persons camps miss at least one meal per week.”

At the invitation of the Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance at the United States Agency for International Development (OFDA/USAID), Dr. Ashok Gadgil and a team of scientists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory traveled to Darfur in 2005 to assess appropriate stove technology for the region. The Berkeley-Darfur Stove is the result of that initial fact-finding mission (and the subsequent research) and is currently at use in over 5,000 homes in IDP camps in Darfur.

3p spoke with Andrée Sosler, Executive Director of the Darfur Stoves Project, to learn more about the initiative and what’s possible when a fledgling non-profit is led by an MBA with a commitment to the public interest and backed by a powerhouse research institution.

Triple Pundit: What is the relationship between the Darfur Stoves Project and the University of California, Berkeley?

Andrée Sosler: The Darfur Stoves Project is an entity of Technology Innovation for Sustainable Societies (TISS), an emergent non-profit currently registering for their 501-(c)3 status. TISS is the link between the lab and NGOs in the field. Our work is demand driven. We focus on relationship building, needs assessment, user feedback, support the creation of supply chains and social marketing. In essence, everything that is not the actual technology. Lawrence Berkeley has a budget of $774 million this year. The staff has tremendous capacity, and a strong will to participate in our work, to volunteer. TISS intends to fill the gap and serve as a connector between the potential of a large research institutions and NGOS.

Dr. Gadgil with a Darfur Stove

3p: The Darfur Stoves Project is just one enterprise led by TISS, independent of USAID but created in collaboration with the Lawrence Berkeley lab?

Sosler: OFDA/USAID introduced the Lawrence Berkeley team to CHF International, the initial partner for the project. The team advised CHF and trained their staff to test and adapt the stoves, etc. However, after sending a team to Darfur, and benefiting from analysis from business schools, we found that we could lower production costs, increase capacity and improve quality consistency by shifting our manufacturing to India. Fundamentally, it was a question of heightened comparative advantage. While some firms mass-produce stoves to turn a profit and others focus on generating local income and keep their production local, TISS works with the Lawrence Berkeley lab and our current field partner, Oxfam America to incorporate the strongest aspects of both models.

3p: There are obvious advantages to having the support of a major research institution, but what are some of the challenges that stem from working with UCB?

Sosler: Communication is a challenge, particularly as it relates to the transition from the research behind a project to its implementation. The Darfur Stoves project benefits tremendously from UCB; it wouldn’t exist without it. Still, one question we are juggling is how to benefit from that support while becoming nimble and independent.

3p: Speaking of independence, how is the Darfur Stoves Project funded?

Sosler: Our personnel are funded in part by research grants from Berkeley, and in part through the donations TISS receives.

3p: The GreaterGood’s Hunger Site is one of the Darfur Stoves Project main online funding streams. What do you know about your primary donors?

Sosler: While nearly 60% of our funds are raised outside Berkeley, in the nascent stages of the organization, we lacked the legal support to navigate the 501(c)3 process and so we relied on a fiscal sponsor to process those donations. One of the challenges of using a fiscal sponsor is donor research. We want to learn more about our constituents to grow, and we need to know who is giving money and what motivates them. It was the right thing to do as we were first growing, but ideally an organization evolves past that structure. We have ambitions to use other technologies.

3p: Speaking of other technologies, your communication materials reference multiple solutions and products. Are there additional stoves in the works?

Sosler: Yes, but the language is future-oriented. Right now the Lawrence Berkeley lab is designing stoves for Ethiopia. They also just sent three people to Haiti to test the stove.

3p: On the Darfur Stoves Project website, you link to other fuel-efficient stoves. Do you consider those firms or organization competitors or collaborators?

Sosler: Historically, it’s been a very competitive field. However, there seems to be a new focus on sharing information and learning from one another. For example, on the recent trip to Haiti, we spoke with the folks from StoveTec and offered to take two of their stoves along in order to garner feedback. In exchange, we sent them a Berkeley-Darfur stove to test. In Haiti, we’re asking what other projects are currently on the ground? What markets are they focusing on? We’ll target our stove to the underserved constituency. Competition can be good; it can also be a detriment. We aren’t claiming our stove is better for every situation. We hope TISS can become a resource portal for stove information.

The Darfur Stove up close

3p: The Darfur-Berkeley stove is for sale, not for aid donation. Can you expand on the value associated with an item bought versus donated?

Sosler: One of the things that drew me to the Darfur Stoves Project was the very strong belief that giving something away for free is a disservice to the people who need it. This philosophy stems from the importance of establishing a feedback mechanism. When you give something away you can do impact assessment and surveys, but you may not get good feedback on how valued your product is. That said, we just delivered 1,000 stoves for free. The ultimate goal is to negotiate with our partners to set a subsidized price above the price of scrap metal.

3p: The Berkeley-Darfur Stove is said to last about five years. The desire to minimize environmental degradation is an impetus behind the project- how has that shaped stove design?

Sosler: First, the stove is designed to use as little firewood as possible. In a lab without wind, it decreases the use of wood by 72%. In the field we think that shifts to 50% (we are currently conducting impact assessment surveys to study this), so the Berkeley-Darfur Stove is at least twice as efficient as cooking on an open fire. In terms of lifecycle though, as the organization grows, we would like to get a sense of the overall carbon footprint of the stove.

3p: In a 2008 interview with the Wharton Journal, you said, “My passion is to develop market-oriented solutions to poverty.” Is that still true? Any amendments or qualifications?

Sosler: Still true. I really believe that a feedback mechanism is crucial and lacking in many elements of international development. Yet, now that I’m working in an extreme humanitarian situation, I recognize that a fully functional market (as it would be defined at Wharton, or by most business schools) is not always optimal. When the goal is worldwide and less focused on those left behind, I would push for more sustainable businesses. I really do think that market solutions to poverty are the way forward.

Editors Note: The Darfur Stoves Project is a forerunner in the Humanity Calls eBay Fundraising Tournament for the Environment—show your support and help them win a portion of the growing cash pool!


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  • http://www.conversations.psu.edu Stephanie Williams

    Females at refugee camps have had many experiences, and can still be exposed to violent acts. LeeAnn DeReus, a Penn State professor and co-founder of Save Darfur: Central PA, has traveled to Africa and shares her experiences on a program called Conversations from Penn State. It is an in-depth interview in which DeReus shares her experiences and the many stories she heard from refugees in Chad. I think you may be interested in the interview as I have attached it at the bottom. Please let me know if you share/post the video. Thanks!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLeT9vHLIfc

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  • http://solarcooking.wikia.com/wiki/Patricia_McArdle Patricia McArdle

    Since retiring from the Department of State in 2006, I have been promoting and teaching the use and construction of solar cookers around the world. I spent 3 weeks in Eastern Chad last fall assessing a project where tens of thousands of Darfur refugee women are cooking food and heating water during the day with cardboard and aluminum foil solar cookers. The fuel efficient stove they use at night and on cloudy days is the German-made stainless steel Save 80 ($100 US). Unfortunately the solar cookers they are using are not as durable as the very expensive wood stove they have been given by UNHCR. Better materials for the solar cookers need to be developed and tested so they can last for years instead of months. Most of the developing world is in the sunbelt, where people should be using solar thermal energy to prepare up to two meals per day. Solar Cookers International on their solar cooking archive wiki offers a vast trove of information about the solar cooking devices being developed and used around the world. When I met Ashok in India in December 2008, we discussed the urgent need for research on the various types of solar cookers to make them stronger, more durable, cheaper and easier to use. His students did a research project on box cookers used in India the following year, but much more research and testing is needed to make sustainable solar thermal cooking technology as ubiquitous as cell phones. Millions of people in China use heavy concrete and polished aluminum solar parabolic cookers to heat water and cook food in their back yards. Noting the need for a lighter solar cooker for nomads in Western China and Tibet, a group of MIT students have designed a solar parabolic cooker (http://solarcooking.wikia.com/wiki/SolSource_3-…) made from bamboo, yak wool and mylar. It can be folded up for easy carrying and it can fry food, generate electricity, and heat a small unit that is taken indoors at night to keep a house warm. This and many other solar cooker prototypes need more funding for research and testing. People in the developing world definitely need the best possible fuel efficient stoves but why should they burn anything in the middle of the day when for most of the year they can cook with free sunshine?

    • http://www.darfurstoves.org Darfur Stoves Project

      Patricia,
      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Based on our experiences in Darfur, all of the women we interviewed preferred wood-burning cookstoves over solar stoves. A solar stove is more like an oven than a stove – it works best with food that is cooked slowly over several hours with no stirring (such as rice). In Darfur, traditional meals are continuously stirred over high heat. The promotion of solar ovens would require a complete change of cooking styles, food eaten, and available ingredients – a logistical and psychological feat. In addition, solar ovens cannot be used to cook a morning meal (because there is not enough sun) – and this meal would still require fuelwood. Given the low durability of low-cost solar ovens (based on cardboard), and the comparable amount of fuelwood that could be saved, we favor durable fuel-efficient cookstoves that can preserve cooking traditions and are more likely to be integrated into Darfuri households.
      Sincerely,
      Darfur Stoves Project

  • http://solarcooking.wikia.com/wiki/Touloum_Refugee_Camp Patricia McArdle

    To: Darfur Stove Project
    I would like to respond to your comment that the refugee women you interviewed preferred wood burning stoves rather than solar stoves. I’m certain that if I were given an either/or choice and I had never cooked with anything but wood, I would also choose a wood-burning stove. The several hundred Darfur women we interviewed in Touloum refugee camp last fall for our study of the largest solar cooker project in the world were all using German-made, wood-burning Save-80 fuel efficient stoves. (You can see our report if you Google “Touloum solar cooking”.) However, during the middle of the day when the sun was providing megawatts of free energy, these women set out their solar cookers and cooked their peas, corn meal, beans and tea water with free solar thermal power.

    The reason many Darfur foods are continuously stirred over high heat is because the only option women have for cooking is fire (which applies intense heat directly to the bottom of a cooking pot). If the food is not stirred it will quickly burn. You are mistaken that the introduction of solar cooking would require a complete change of food eaten and available ingredients. Tens of thousands of families in Touloum, Iridimi and Oure Cassoni refugee camps eat solar cooked (USAID provided) beans, corn meal and peas every day. The solar cooker device they manufacture and use, the Cookit, works like a crockpot and slow cooks the food. Because the heat is evenly distributed around the pot, no stirring is necessary and nothing burns. I am about to post on my YouTube site (solarwindmama) a video I took last fall showing a woman in Touloum camp cooking a pot of boule (corn meal) with a Cookit. When the pot is opened after cooking, the steaming boule looks like polenta, but as soon as she gives it a few quick stirs with her wooden spoon it has the same whipped consistency (and flavor) as boule cooked over a fire (without the fire!). We ate solar cooked boule, sauce and beans every day we were working in the camp! Cleaning up pots after solar cooking also uses much less water because there is no soot and food does not stick to the bottom or sides of the pot.

    Solar cooking with box and panel cookers takes longer than cooking over a fire, but no wood must be gathered (which not only takes time but also destroys the environment). Food can be placed in a solar box or panel cooker early in the day, and left out in the sun to heat (to between 250 and 350 degrees F) while women tend to other chores from the shade of their houses. Once an hour they must go out in the sun for less than a minute to turn the solar cooker so it continues to tracks the sun. They do not have to open the pot or stir the food while it is cooking. Unlike fuel-efficient stoves, solar box and panel cookers can be used on a table top with no danger of burning (since only the pot and not the reflectors) get hot and the pot never reaches burning temperature (F 451). This is useful for mothers who want to keep their children safe and for the elderly and handicapped for whom bending over to tend a fire (or a fuel efficient stove) on the ground is a challenge.

    If high heat is critical to cooking (for speed or culinary reasons) solar parabolic cookers (which focus sunlight on the bottom of a pot with the heat of a fire) are another option. Two American grad students working with Himalayan nomads have developed a cheap, portable parabolic solar cooker (the Sol Source 3-in-1) made with yak wool, bamboo and aluminized polyester film (Mylar®). It not only boils and fries as fast as a fire, it powers a small ceramic device that can recharge batteries and it heats a small unit that can be taken inside at night to warm the nomads’ tents. There are more than one million cement and aluminum parabolic solar cookers being used in the backyards of rural Chinese and Tibetan homes. Hundreds of thousands more are used in India and Africa.

    Fuel-efficient stoves are very important for cooking early in the morning, on cloudy days and after dark, but why burn anything in the middle of the day and in the middle of the desert when you can cook and boil water with free solar thermal energy? Modern kitchens have many cooking devices (stove-top burners, convection ovens, toaster ovens, coffee makers, microwaves, bread ovens). Why should we presume that refugee women are capable of using one device? Many are not only using solar cookers and fuel-efficient stoves, they are doubling the efficiency of these two devices by also using retained heat cooking baskets.

    You mentioned the ‘low durability’ of the cardboard solar ovens. This is true, but they cost only a few dollars each. More durable models could be made with plasticized cardboard and highly reflective adhesive mirror film (like the Reflectec used in large-scale solar thermal collectors that generate steam for power plants in the Mojave desert). Solar cookers made from these materials would last for years, but more research is needed to test and measure the effectiveness of these materials for solar cookers. The solar cooking community has so far not managed to attract the sort of R&D funding that the stove community has received from USAID, the Shell Foundation and other large donors. We should not think of fuel efficient stoves and solar cookers as competing technologies but rather as part of an integrated cooking system that could dramatically reduce fuel consumption by taking advantage of the world’s most abundant and free source of energy—the sun.

  • http://solarcooking.wikia.com/wiki/Touloum_Refugee_Camp Patricia McArdle

    To: Darfur Stove Project
    I would like to respond to your comment that the refugee women you interviewed preferred wood burning stoves rather than solar stoves. I’m certain that if I were given an either/or choice and I had never cooked with anything but wood, I would also choose a wood-burning stove. The several hundred Darfur women we interviewed in Touloum refugee camp last fall for our study of the largest solar cooker project in the world were all using German-made, wood-burning Save-80 fuel efficient stoves. (You can see our report if you Google “Touloum solar cooking”.) However, during the middle of the day when the sun was providing megawatts of free energy, these women set out their solar cookers and cooked their peas, corn meal, beans and tea water with free solar thermal power.

    The reason many Darfur foods are continuously stirred over high heat is because the only option women have for cooking is fire (which applies intense heat directly to the bottom of a cooking pot). If the food is not stirred it will quickly burn. You are mistaken that the introduction of solar cooking would require a complete change of food eaten and available ingredients. Tens of thousands of families in Touloum, Iridimi and Oure Cassoni refugee camps eat solar cooked (USAID provided) beans, corn meal and peas every day. The solar cooker device they manufacture and use, the Cookit, works like a crockpot and slow cooks the food. Because the heat is evenly distributed around the pot, no stirring is necessary and nothing burns. I am about to post on my YouTube site (solarwindmama) a video I took last fall showing a woman in Touloum camp cooking a pot of boule (corn meal) with a Cookit. When the pot is opened after cooking, the steaming boule looks like polenta, but as soon as she gives it a few quick stirs with her wooden spoon it has the same whipped consistency (and flavor) as boule cooked over a fire (without the fire!). We ate solar cooked boule, sauce and beans every day we were working in the camp! Cleaning up pots after solar cooking also uses much less water because there is no soot and food does not stick to the bottom or sides of the pot.

    Solar cooking with box and panel cookers takes longer than cooking over a fire, but no wood must be gathered (which not only takes time but also destroys the environment). Food can be placed in a solar box or panel cooker early in the day, and left out in the sun to heat (to between 250 and 350 degrees F) while women tend to other chores from the shade of their houses. Once an hour they must go out in the sun for less than a minute to turn the solar cooker so it continues to tracks the sun. They do not have to open the pot or stir the food while it is cooking. Unlike fuel-efficient stoves, solar box and panel cookers can be used on a table top with no danger of burning (since only the pot and not the reflectors) get hot and the pot never reaches burning temperature (F 451). This is useful for mothers who want to keep their children safe and for the elderly and handicapped for whom bending over to tend a fire (or a fuel efficient stove) on the ground is a challenge.

    If high heat is critical to cooking (for speed or culinary reasons) solar parabolic cookers (which focus sunlight on the bottom of a pot with the heat of a fire) are another option. Two American grad students working with Himalayan nomads have developed a cheap, portable parabolic solar cooker (the Sol Source 3-in-1) made with yak wool, bamboo and aluminized polyester film (Mylar®). It not only boils and fries as fast as a fire, it powers a small ceramic device that can recharge batteries and it heats a small unit that can be taken inside at night to warm the nomads’ tents. There are more than one million cement and aluminum parabolic solar cookers being used in the backyards of rural Chinese and Tibetan homes. Hundreds of thousands more are used in India and Africa.

    Fuel-efficient stoves are very important for cooking early in the morning, on cloudy days and after dark, but why burn anything in the middle of the day and in the middle of the desert when you can cook and boil water with free solar thermal energy? Modern kitchens have many cooking devices (stove-top burners, convection ovens, toaster ovens, coffee makers, microwaves, bread ovens). Why should we presume that refugee women are capable of using one device? Many are not only using solar cookers and fuel-efficient stoves, they are doubling the efficiency of these two devices by also using retained heat cooking baskets.

    You mentioned the ‘low durability’ of the cardboard solar ovens. This is true, but they cost only a few dollars each. More durable models could be made with plasticized cardboard and highly reflective adhesive mirror film (like the Reflectec used in large-scale solar thermal collectors that generate steam for power plants in the Mojave desert). Solar cookers made from these materials would last for years, but more research is needed to test and measure the effectiveness of these materials for solar cookers. The solar cooking community has so far not managed to attract the sort of R&D funding that the stove community has received from USAID, the Shell Foundation and other large donors. We should not think of fuel efficient stoves and solar cookers as competing technologies but rather as part of an integrated cooking system that could dramatically reduce fuel consumption by taking advantage of the world’s most abundant and free source of energy—the sun.

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