By Barbara Grady
Like a lot of things in this global economy, an apparatus designed here, manufactured 8,400 miles away, and assembled at yet a third place close to its users, is having a profound affect on lives.
In this case it is the Berkeley-Darfur Stove, which is helping hundreds of thousands of women in Darfur refugee camps avoid dangerous day-long treks to look for firewood and saving their children from health problems caused by inhaling heavy plumes of smoke.
Moreover, the stoves — designed in Berkeley and manufactured as flat kits in Mumbai, India — are creating economic opportunity in Sudan, where they are assembled, and in the nearby camps, where the women who use them save time and money not having to find so much wood.
The stoves are likely to have an even wider impact going forward as production continues to scale.
“Half of the world cooks over an open fire,” said Debra Stein, the acting executive director of the Darfur Stove Project which has been renamed Potential Energy as it moves into mass production of the cookstoves.
“Open fires have terrible environmental impacts and severe health impacts,” she said, explaining that open fires burn inefficiently, so require a lot of wood and spew lots of smoke. The Darfur Stove needs about one-third of the wood used in an open fire.
Because of the economic and life-saving impact, Potential Energy and its Darfur Stove received an award from the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose last month as one of 10 innovations of “Technology Benefiting Humanity.”
The Tech Museum noted that people in the Darfur camps were spending one-third of their income on firewood, often skipping meals for lack of fuel. The solution Potential Energy provided is “an energy-saving metal cookstove adapted for local cooking traditions and assembled from flat kits that are easily stockpiled and deployed.” The impact by this fall is 37,500 stoves disseminated, benefiting 225,000 people.
Supplying clean metal cookstoves as the answer to the health and environmental problems caused by reliance on open wood fire stoves was proposed by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in September 2010 when she challenged the world to deliver 100 million clean cook stoves to Third-World homes by the year 2020.
Clinton pledged $50 million in U.S. aid toward this goal and helped launch the Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
She said that close to 2 million people a year die from exposure to smoke from open cooking fires — many of them young children hovering near their mothers or strapped to their mothers’ backs during cooking.
Now a number of organizations are making and distributing cookstoves. What is unique about Potential Energy’s Berkeley-Darfur Stove, however, is its design, manufacture and assembly — which is why it received an Economic Impact award.
Peter Gardner, from the Center for Science, Technology, and Society at Santa Clara University and one of the judges in the award process, said, “Potential Energy was selected both because of the beneficial impact they’ve had on the lives of Darfuri families and the process that was undertaken to meet the specific needs of that population.” It won the economic impact segment, and Gardner cited the “novel approaches to design, manufacturing, assembly and financing,” as well as the partnership with Lawrence Berkeley National Labs as having “set an example for how the right partnerships can deliver unique solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.”
Stein explained that the manufacture and assembly process was how they could assure that tens of thousands of stoves could be made and distributed quickly.
“They are manufactured as flat kits of stamped metal sheets in Mumbai, India and then shipped to Sudan for assembly. Thirteen people from a displacement camp have been trained to do the assembly,” Stein said.
The flat metal manufacture and assembly-close-to-use design means it costs less than $20 to get a stove into the hands of a user in the camp. The design also incorporates user feedback from the women using the stoves so, for instance, they fit the type of pots Darfur women use, she said. That means they can be assured the stoves are, in fact, being used.
“The science of maximizing efficiency is matched with customizing them to fit the pots most commonly used in Darfur,” Stein said. “We also added a wind collar to keep the fire from burning too fast and to maximize combustion.”
The stove was designed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist Ashok Gadgil, who is now also president of Potential Energy’s Board of Directors.
In 2005, when the Darfur Stove was first invented, things were particularly bad for the women in the refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan. Living in cramped quarters in the war-torn country, they were spending seven hours a day, many days a week, foraging for firewood in the sparse, desert-like region. Often, women would be assaulted as they went out looking for wood. When the wood ran out in the sparsely-forested land, women would buy wood, often trading food for wood.
The U.S. Agency for International Development asked LBL’s Gadgil if he could do something about this problem. Gadgil, with the help of Engineers without Borders and consultation from the women in Darfur, invented a stove that could be cheaply manufactured and easily assembled.
Stein said users save $300 a year or $1 a day on wood: an amount that goes far in Sudan where the annual income is roughly $1,000.
To assure that the women cooking meals will, in fact, use the stoves, Potential Energy has begun selling them in some places for a nominal fee, realizing that if users invest in something, they value it more. “We’ve sold 5,500 of them, for the equivalent of about $8 each,” while still distributing them for free in the new displacement camps.
Now Potential Energy plans to expand into Ethiopia and is consulting with rural cooks there for what features a stove sold there would need.
Although a 501(c)3 nonprofit, Potential Energy is among a new breed of “social enterprises” that is solving a need, but aims to do it in a self-sustaining, income-producing way, she said.