Notes on cook-stoves

Smoke-less cook-stoves are back in fashion. It is strange how an ‘old as the hills’ idea suddenly generates a buzz when announced by a powerful woman, backed by millions of $$$ at a summit in a swanky hotel ballroom. In any case, the really important question for development workers who swim the tide and keep up with the trends is – how can we make them work (for us?) this time? 

This post is not about best practices. It is from my memory of a cook-stoves programme I have seen from close quarters; about what can go wrong. Although the intervention had features that could have made it work, it faced numerous challenges that made field workers and communities weary and progress, slow. The stoves were built using locally-available mud, using metal casts. A few individuals in every community were taught to build and maintain the stoves. This was also presented as an opportunity for self-help groups of women to adopt as an income-generating activity. Local potters were engaged to built a set of detachable pipes for the stove so that it would be easy to clean. Households paid for their own stoves. 

However, the implementation turned out to be quite tricky

  • Smokeless cook-stoves required uniformly sized small pieces of firewood – which was a nuisance for women used to collecting firewood from the forest and using it directly in their stoves. Often, I have seen a whole tree trunk shoved into the fire, being used to cook.
  • In the particular design that was being used, although a double-pot design, only one pot got the full heat, while the other pot only got the transfered heat from the first one. This usually meant they would have another stove burning since the new improved stove would  not cook fast enough.
  • The new stoves also came in fixed sizes and one could only use pots of a certain size, unlike traditional stoves which could easily be adjusted to accommodate larger or smaller pots by merely moving bricks around. 
  • In dense neighbourhoods, houses were much too close to each other and directing pipes through the nearest wall could mean smoking out the neighbour’s bed room. This was after we somehow convinced families that we were not going to break their house down in trying to make a hole in the wall. 
  • Communities also saw these chimneys/smoke pipes as a serious fire hazard, and rightfully so, since most houses had thatched roofs. 
  • Mud pipes often broke during transportation; field workers and households wanted to use asbestos pipes – another health hazard. 
  • In multi-caste villages, higher caste families would not allow individuals of lower castes to enter their kitchens. This was in spite of years of living together in the same community, attending social events collectively – the kitchen was still out of bounds
  • Often these were one or two room houses, with no particular kitchen space. Such houses would often have no covered space outdoors where a new smokeless cook-stove could be installed. Where there was a kitchen, it was often small and would have no space to build a smokeless cook-stove. Of course, most families wouldn’t allow their old stove to be dismantled.
  • When the chimney started getting blocked, the stove would emit fumes, often worse than before. Households who were not taught to clean and maintain the cook-stoves or if pipes broke while cleaning – would then stop using them and move back to their traditional chullas. Having paid for stoves was not enough to ensure ‘ownership’.
This is of course entirely anecdotal and need not be typical of other clean cook-stove programmes around the world, in the past, present or future. 

2 Replies to “Notes on cook-stoves”

  1. I too am skeptical of stoves as the latest development fad and am extremely wary of any products manufactured in the developed world that are touted, marketed, or delivered to “make life better” for poor people in the developing world.

    Any efforts to improve people’s lives in the developing world must first be based on the locally available resources, rather than creating additional dependency on outside “expertise,” supplies, or technology. It’s also vital to avoid undermining local economies and local organizations, especially if products such as these are delivered through traditional funding mechanisms, with each layer of bureaucracy taking its share.

    Clinton needs to take a more responsible approach to throwing her support behind “solutions” such as these. The media must also stop portraying foreign assistance as a kind of ever-elusive (and arrogant) search for a single, magic “silver bullet” to solve poverty. Instead, let us all focus on putting real resources behind local initiatives and means of overcoming obstacles in the developing world.

    Despite whatever trend comes next from the policymakers, development experts, and donors, skilled and experienced people working on the ground know that no technological initiative in and of itself can offer the full answer to complex problems in the developing world.

    See also this related post entitled, Hilary, Stoves Won’t Save the World’t-save-the-world/


  2. Thanks for the comment, 'How Matters'. I have been following the reactions to the cookstoves announcement, including that on your blog. Really curious to see what this will lead to.


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