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Sustainable Cooking Stoves

by David Lehr

Energy poverty in the developing world is a complex and ongoing problem with serious impacts on health, economic growth, and the overall environment. The impact on the poor is particularly felt in their day to day needs for cooking fuel – much of it coming from either oil or gas - or from the decreasing availability of freely collected fuels such as firewood or its derivative, charcoal.

Growing price volatility for these products has created shortages of fuel and increasing uncertainty around meeting basic needs. Indoor pollution from smoke contributes to health problems such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, cancers and eye diseases, and of course there are ongoing risks or burns and fire from unstable cooking pots and stoves.

As I have learned more about these issues and cooking fuel in particular, I was surprised at both just how complex they are and the number of organizations trying to find "better stove solutions," including giants such as the FAO, Oxfam, and Shell Foundation to much smaller organizations such as Mayan Families, The Escorts Foundation, Envirofit, and the Chimp-n-Sea Wildlife Conservation Fund.

These organizations are all either donating stoves, or providing funding to local organizations and communities so that they can either purchase or build their own stoves. The focus has been almost exclusively on improving efficiencies around wood burning, and most of the designs are based on the rocket stove, whose creation is widely attributed to Larry Winiarski from Aprovecho.

There are other alternatives that have the potential to move away from wood and fossil fuels altogether which I will write about in future posts. One of the more interesting wood fuel organizations I have seen is Stove Team International in Eugene, Oregon. Their approach has been to set up small factories in Central America that produce affordable and fuel-efficient stoves, largely initially using volunteer labor and small grants to cover the costs of construction. Ultimately, however, they are one of the few organizations actually selling their stoves and using a business approach to increase their sustainability and avoid creating a "hand out" mentality. Over 4,200 of their stoves have been sold in the last year.

Stove Team produces stoves from local materials that sell for $40 with the grants covering $20 and the end user paying a final price of $20 (often equivalent to the costs for a two or three week supply of firewood). The money is collected in payments of $5 a month for four months. In addition to helping address the above health, environment and cost concerns, the factories are run by locals, so employment opportunities increase as well.

The stoves – called Ecocinas– use 50 to 70 percent less fuel than traditional stoves or open fires and emit 70 percent less smoke. They generally cook food quickly, freeing up time for their users. The stoves also can be easily carried outside, which also reduces indoor pollution.

Today Stove Team has factories in El Salvador and Guatemala and they are planning to expand to other countries as funding becomes available. They are also working on getting their stoves certified so that they can receive carbon credits and further decrease their need for grant monies.

David Lehr has over 15 years of experience in international business and development focused primarily on information communication technologies and job creation and is currently Senior Advisor, Social Innovations at Mercy Corps. He has consulted for several non-profits, including Acumen Fund and Gates Foundation on issues related to technology and poverty alleviation.

This piece originally appeared on the NextBillion

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I feel you mention this but don't elaborate fully.

Excessive collection of biomass-based materials (excluding agro crop residuals) for stoves can be terribly detrimental to local environments. This is particularly the case in areas with nutrient poor soils. It exacerbates topsoil erosion, furthers nutrient loss, increasing potential for flash flooding / mudslides, removing biomass that is very important for maintaining soil moisture as well as providing shade.

There are some groups pushing low tech solar concentrators and anaerobic biodigestors, for both water purification and cooking, but they are certainly not as easy to produce on a mass scale or use as rocket stove influenced creations.

I'd suggest looking at a good business / non-profit hybrid example from the Barefoot College in India. They instruct impoverished women on setting up solar photovoltaic systems, parabolic solar cookers, and water pumps. The women subsequently charge fees for their services.

Posted by: Stelios Theoharidis on 14 Jan 09

David, thanks for the interesting update. You don't talk much about biofuel, the production of which goes hand in hand with efficient stoves. Biodigesters solve several problems, by anaerobically producing methane gas from waste. Vidya Sagar of SKG in India's slogan is "Waste is Wealth". Using this waste management improves hygiene, creates clean burning fuel for cooking, and decreased carbon emissions. You can learn more about many of these benefits at (where I am the director of Communications!)

Posted by: Betsy Teutsch on 14 Jan 09

Anyone for Alexis Belonio's rice husk stove? (

Posted by: Jordan Lloyd on 15 Jan 09

We need to make solar cooking technology less expensive so they can be made locally and be affordable for the poorest among us, the fuel is free.

Posted by: Mike Holman on 22 Jan 09

The picture at the beginning of the post looks like the picture of the "rocket stove" in Toolbox for Sustainable City Living by Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew from the Rhizome Collective in Austin, Texas. They made theirs with found materials like a five gallon metal container that had been used to ship veggie oil, an L shaped piece of air duct, and a tin can that had been cut along the side and flattened out. It would be something nice to have on hand in the event of a power outage or a natural disaster.

Posted by: Michael Martinez on 29 Jan 09

David--thanks for the great article on our Ecocina stove, even though the picture isn't ours. Any way, thanks again. If you want more info or pictures of our cement stove, just let me know.

Posted by: Don Steely on 4 Feb 09

me urge saber de alguien alguna compania que haga disene casas con container o contenedores de acero y las envien a puerto rico en el caribe,, gracias

Posted by: delia m morro on 23 Mar 09

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