The Darfur Stoves Project: A Market Solution to Poverty

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!

Tori conducts research and writes on environmental issues, with a special focus on food justice. Her professional experience in the civic sector and academic background in social and economic development ground her work and belief in a sustainable food system as an achievable human right. Tori is based in Bogota, Colombia where she is pursuing a bilingual, international career in environmental policy.