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With wood scarce in Darfur, a new stove promises good things for women and the environment

By Coco McCabe

It's at the nexus of all of our lives: the kitchen—and its stove. But for countless women in Darfur, Sudan, that nexus is more about hardship and horror than it is about the comforts of home.

Many women in Darfur no longer have homes. They are living in crowded camps for displaced people where the simple stoves on which they cook define their days—days filled with treks for firewood that expose them to attacks and sexual assault, with dangerous hunts for work to earn money for stove fuel, with painful decisions about selling some of the food donors give their families so they can use the cash to buy fuel to cook the rest.

All of these choices are grim. But in Darfur, where more than six years of conflict have set 2.8 million people adrift, this is the reality. And that's why Oxfam America is launching an initiative, together with the Darfur Stoves Project and an in-country organization called Sustainable Action Group, to bring a new kind of wood-burning stove into the camps, a stove designed to reduce dramatically the amount of firewood families need each day.

The initiative is the latest step in Oxfam's ongoing program to help women in Darfur find cheaper and more efficient ways to cook. The goal is not only to keep them safer by cutting the amount of time they spend searching for wood beyond the safety of the camps, but to reduce the demand for the resource which is leading to severe deforestation in some areas.

"A huge issue for Darfur is its fragile environment," says Emily Farr, Oxfam's humanitarian livelihoods specialist who is overseeing the stove project. "Firewood is becoming more and more scarce, and large tracts of land—especially around some of the camps—have lost all their trees."

Called the Berkeley-Darfur stove, this new device could go a long way toward addressing that problem.

Deceptively simple

Made from sheets of metal, the new stove incorporates ideas provided by women themselves in the camps. Its design looks deceptively simple. A small opening for the firebox prevents too much fuel from being stuffed inside. The stove has tabs that can hold a plate for baking bread. And vents have been designed to limit the amount of air rushing in on gusty days.

Many women still cook on traditional stoves: three stones lodged into the ground with a chunk of firewood or charcoal burning in the center and a pot resting on top. The Berkeley-Darfur stove is 75 percent more efficient than the traditional stove and 50 percent more efficient than the clay models some families use. The metal stoves, which cost $20 each to make, last about five years—a good deal longer than the clay versions which can collapse after just four months.

Oxfam's plan calls for the distribution of 9,120 of the new stoves. Kits with all the parts are being manufactured in India, but the stoves themselves will be assembled in Darfur—with the help of local hands. That's one of the key objectives of the program: to offer displaced people training and a chance to earn a little income. Expectations are that each worker will be able to build about six stoves a day.

Choosing the right model

In a place that gets so much sun so much of the year why not provide people with solar cookers?

"In each of the camps where we work we have to consider what suits the situation best," says Farr. "Solar stoves can't be the only kind people have because there are many foods that can't be easily cooked using the existing affordable solar technology. If people can't cook their normal foods, they won't use the stove."

Likewise, in regions where there is a reliable supply of gas, it makes sense to equip people with gas stoves because they can be a lot cheaper for a family to operate than a traditional wood stove. In camps near urban areas, families can spend between $55 and $95 a month on wood for their traditional stoves. It's their second biggest expense after food. Refilling a gas cylinder costs $18, and the gas can last between one to two months. Gas stoves are also cleaner than wood—and women appreciate not having their clothes and bodies shrouded in smoke.

Oxfam and the Sudan Action Group also provided gas stoves to some of the families in Al Salaam and Abu Shouk camps outside El Fasher, the capital of North Darfur.

"People loved the gas stoves because the fuel is cheap, it burns clean, and food cooks very quickly," says Farr. "However, there are challenges with the supply chain: gas stoves are only an option where gas is readily available, such as in more urban areas." She notes that one local entrepreneur started a business ferrying empty canisters from a camp into El Fasher where he would have them filled and then return them to the camp –for a fee of 45 cents per canister.

While the majority of people who tried the stoves could afford them, some families found the monthly cost of the gas at $18 a canister too steep.

The cost of fuel—whether it's gas or wood—and its availability are things all stove projects have to take into account. If gas is available, will people have the money to purchase it? If not, then a smart stove project will include a way for people to earn an income, says Farr.

"In a place where we're using a model that burns wood and people are collecting it, we need to integrate peace-building and protection. Even if a stove uses less wood, women still have to go out and collect it—and they need protection," says Farr.

And so does the environment, she adds. Good stove projects, like Oxfam's, include public education about the environment and steps to protect it such as asking community members to plant and nurture tree seedlings.