What’s in a stove?

By Elizabeth Stevens
With a fuel-efficient stove, Hawa Adam Dawelbiat has been able to reduce her use of firewood by two thirds.

With a thud and a spray of flying sand, Hawa Adam Dawelbiat splinters a dry tree branch. A few deft blows of her ax and she has produced a small pile of kindling, which she picks up and displays to a visitor. This is what it takes to cook for her family: one third the wood she used each day before the arrival of her fuel-efficient stove.

Over time, that will mean one third of the dangerous fuel-gathering trips to the countryside, one third the loss of trees, one third the smoke inhaled by Dawelbiat and her young ones, one third the air emissions. And now that she is buying her fuel in the marketplace, she’s spending a third of what she used to and has more money to feed and clothe and educate her children.

High-tech simplicity

Her stove—known as the Berkeley-Darfur Stove—is the brainchild of the Darfur Stoves Project (DSP), a US-based Oxfam partner organization that draws on the work of engineers at the Lawrence-Berkeley National Laboratory in California. DSP worked with women in Darfur to develop a stove suited to their needs that would use less than half the fuel of a traditional three-stone fireplace and significantly less than other stove models that are available locally. The result is a portable 12-sided metal stove - around 12” in every dimension - that is as advanced in its design as it is simple in its construction. And whose frugal output is a match for the scarce resources of the Darfur camps.

A fuel-efficient meal

On a day in December, while her daughter and a friend play on a mat behind her and a neighbor holds her ten-month-old baby, Dawelbiat sits down on a low stool next to her stove and begins to cook her family’s mid-morning meal. The kitchen is a low mud-brick building, shadowy but brightly lit where the sun slips in through the doorway.

She places a pot of water on the stove, adds a few pieces of wood to the firebox, and sets the fire going with a match. When the water boils, she sprinkles ground millet into the pot and stirs it with a long, carved wooden stick until she’s created a thick porridge—known as asida—which she sets aside in a bowl. The next course is mullah, a soup made of onions fried in oil with dried meat, crushed tomato, okra, and spices. And finally, tea. In the space of an hour, Dawelbiat and her fistful of kindling have produced a meal for six.

Building stoves, protection, and incomes

At the compound of Oxfam partner SAG (Sustainable Action Group) in nearby El Fasher, the usual sounds of a Darfur town—the roar of vehicles, the clatter of grain mills, and the bleats and brays of animals—is replaced with the banging of metal on metal. Here in a building sided and thatched with sorghum stalks, eight men from the Al Salaam camp work at tables assembling Berkeley-Darfur stoves. They smile at visitors and get back to work, bending and hammering metal into its designated size and shape. To the list of benefits of the stoves can be added one more: employing survivors of the conflict, who—uprooted from their homes and farms—struggle to find any work at all.

So far, SAG and the workers from the camps have produced and distributed around 9,000 stoves. With enough funds, they’ll create 15,000 stoves in 2011. Some will go to the camps, others to rural areas hard up against the deadly combination of deforestation and armed conflict.

More people should have these stoves

Dawelbiat is shy with strangers, but her praise for the stove is effusive all the same. “The stove is good because it’s efficient and saves fuel and cooks faster. It’s better at keeping the kitchen clean, and there is less smoke. You can easily cook with it and easily move it around. Even a small portion of fuel can make your food.”

“More people should have these stoves,” she concludes.

It is a point that no one argues.