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Wooster’s First Law of Poverty-Fighting is, “listen to the poor and give them what they want, not what you think they need.” It’s a constant of philanthropic history that well-meaning do-gooders have gone into the field in Detroit, Dhaka, or Darfur, armed with the answers, laboriously acquired at great expense in New Haven, London, or Turtle Bay, only to be frustrated when poor people don’t do what the experts say they need to do because they have their own preferences about how to succeed in life.

Writing in the Washington Post, Marc Gunther discusses the latest philanthropic folly, the effort to persuade poor people to use clean cooking stoves rather than other stoves that use smoky fuels that are dangerous and could cause the cooks, mostly women, to get sick from the fumes.

I wasn’t familiar with Gunther’s work until I read his Washington Post piece, but I looked at his website and found that he is a former Fortune staff writer who has written several books on philanthropy and poverty-fighting. I’d like to read more of his reporting.

According to Gunther, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in 2010.“Today, we can finally envision a future in which open fires and dirty stoves are replaced by clean, efficient stoves and fuels all over the world,” Secretary Clinton proclaimed. Speaking at the annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, Hillary Clinton declared that having poor women use clean cookstoves “could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines” in helping better the lives of the poor.

The Global Alliance is a project of the United Nations Foundation. It says it spends $10 million a year on cookstoves and has gotten $143 million in contributions. I looked at their website and didn’t find that many major foundations donating to the project, but they do get money from the State Department, the Agency for International Development, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Peace Corps. They also work with several major nonprofits that focus on development, including Habitat for Humanity, Mercy Corps, and Lutheran World Relief. Among the smaller organizations they work with is an Ethiopian expatriate who decided to call his stove the “Obamastove”.

Gunther reports there have been several problems in the introduction of cookstoves around the world.

They’re not really clean. The Global Cookstove Alliance says it has introduced 28 million cookstoves to the Third World. But of these, only 8.2 million—those that run on liquefied petroleum gas, biogas, or ethanol—meet the definition of a “non-polluting” cookstove created by the World Health Organization. The rest still pollute, although less so than the traditional wood and dung-burning stoves they are replacing.

They’re not durable. Many cookstoves have relatively short lives as they break or corrode within a few months.

Poor people don’t like them. “Even if people are aware of the health risks of cooking over open fires (and many are not),” Gunther writes, “they are reluctant to abandon cooking methods embedded in their culture.” Author Meera Subramanian visited one village in India and found that women had largely abandoned the cookstoves given them by the government because they didn’t get hot enough to cook, they burned too much wood, or the stoves broke. “I couldn’t find a single stove operating in any condition resembling what its designers had intended,” Subramanian wrote in her book A River Runs Again.

A Stockholm Environment Institute research team led by Fiona Lambe and Aaron Atteridge quizzed women about cookstoves and found that most preferred cooking roti, the traditional Indian bread, over old-fashioned stoves, because they could bake the bread on the stoves and because they liked the taste burning wood or dung provided, much in the same way people like food cooked over charcoal.

Gunther reports that while Indian consumers balk at the new cookstoves, China ordered 100 million stoves and made sure they were used. But India is a democracy and China is Communist

Fuel is expensive. The cleanest cookstoves are gas-fueled, and gas costs a lot, particularly in rural areas far from the nearest pipeline.

Does the cookstove problem have to be solved by the government? Gunther describes how Eric Reynolds, formerly the head of Marmot, an outdoor gear company, has started Inyenyeri, a benefit corporation which intends to lease cookstoves at low prices in the hopes of making profits on the biomass pellets used as fuel. The company, Gunther says, remains “small and unproven.”

Eventually poor people will have cookstoves they like and the pollution caused by older stoves will decline. But Gunther warns that the promise made by Hillary Clinton in 2010 of a future in which Third World families will have “clean, efficient, and affordable stoves and fuels” is one that “remains a long way off.”

2 thoughts on “New and globally imposed (but not too improved) cookstoves”

  1. Hello,
    Although we never intended to end up with a dinner-making, wood-burning stove suitable for dissemination among the “poor” of the world – a stove that you can make using the cans that food comes in, employing tools that are ubiquitously available – we did, in fact, do so. And yes, they boil water quickly, can be kept going for hours (attended, that is) and are very fuel-efficient in that they do both primary and secondary burning. So far, after a year of use, they show no signs of being any the worse for wear.

    The proof of the pudding is in the using and we have used nothing but our stoves for the past year, as we worked, without electricity, to restore a much-abused-and-neglected, 95 year old cafe, in this dying town in the Blue Mountains. We have them set up in the sheltered area on the porch to the north side of the building. By contrast, all the other people you seem to have spoken to do not have to depend on the product they have designed to cook every day. Come 5:00 p.m., they go home to an electric stove or to a restaurant, somewhere, in a city.

    These stoves are neither bulky, nor are they heavy. They cost almost nothing to make. In fact, what they’re made from is what people normally throw away or recycle. There’s no great secret to how they work so well: a double-wall primary combustion chamber takes in air, (drawn downward into the stove from a mid-height, circumference entry zone) both from the bottom into itself and around itself. Wood gas released by the primary combustion of the fuel chunks inside the combustion chamber, that would normally exit the top as smoke, meets the hot envelope of heated air moving up around the inner wall. The combination of the two streams results in secondary combustion that adds to the draw of the stove. That clean cooking flame is then concentrated at the top of the stove by conical top vent.

    The stove is top-fed. We’ve tried bottom-fed designs, but they don’t work as well. To obviate compaction of the coal bed at the bottom by new fuel being fed from the top, there are two grates. The upper grate – made of crossing wires – has wide apertures, the lower grate (holes drilled in the bottom of the can that serves as the inner wall of the primary combustion chamber) has a much tighter configuration.

    The chunks of wood the stove uses do not have to be absolutely dry for the stove work. However, the drier the fuel, the cleaner the flame is. Hard woods, soft woods, they all work, but hard woods contain more caloric value. The ash residue left after a couple of hours of cooking is minimal because the wood is so completely burned.

    What you DO need is good tools to size the wood chunks to a loadable size – specifically, a sharp bow-saw and either a short-handled axe (hatchet), or a small maul, to split the short lengths of thicker branches you saw to size.

    The first, and main, reason we are writing to you is to correct the impression expressed in your article that a very good design is nowhere to be found. At least one exists. Your article, itself, provides the second reason, which is to solicit your opinion, based on the extensive research that we can see you have done.

    We don’t dismiss the idea that these stoves could be produced in volume, right here, and then shipped to wherever needed but if you asked us whether we would WANT to do that, using our own resources alone, the answer would have to be “no”. Doing something like this, on a scale large enough for it to be worth it, would require both capital and connections we don’t have access to. Better, then, that we make our design available for review and testing by people who are already deeply involved in that issue. There again, we don’t know anybody. Just writing to people, blind, we have found from past experience, without being personally connected by an intermediary, is a waste of time and time is one thing we don’t have to squander, at this point.

    Our primary motivation in writing to you is to help conserve fragile fuel wood reserves in areas where the environment produces fuel wood very slowly. In addition, as your article mentioned, inefficient fuel wood use contributes an added burden on the photosynthesizing plant resources of the planet to preserve the right atmospheric balance between CO2 and other atmospheric gases. Obviously, the two concerns are interlinked.

    If you think you’d like to help connect us with some party whom you believe might be interested in our stove design, we would be most grateful for the opportunity of getting this handy little gadget further out into the world than our own front porch.

    We can be contacted either through the email above or at our land address: 105 E. Main St., Long Creek, OR 97856. Unfortunately, our cell phone doesn’t work in this area.

    Thank you.
    Peter Wale and Rachel Christenson

  2. Bill C. says:

    I wonder how many clients, those poor women who use the stoves, are on the board at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

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