Resource Magazine — November/December 2013
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Fueling the Fight against Poverty with Improved Cookstoves
Rebecca Chin

Editor’s note: ASABE member Rebecca Chin was selected by Engineers Week as the 2013 College Edition “New Face of Engineering” representing ASABE. Nominated by the Society, she was selected for excellence in academics and fieldwork in engineering-related food security issues in rural India and west Africa. Fluent in English, French, basic Spanish and Wolof, she will receive an MSc in Bioresource Engineering from McGill University in 2014. Her proposed research topic is “multi-media approaches for the transfer of appropriate technology.” Chin received the Julie Payette–Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Research Scholarship ($25,000 for 12 months) and a John Deere scholarship for her proven interest in agricultural machinery design and development. As a bioresource engineering undergraduate, Chin (as part of a student team) won the 2012 Canadian Society for Biological Engineering Undergraduate Design Award. She twice received an NSERC Undergraduate Student Research Award—first for research in composting, and two years later for research in optimizing a millet roller mill. Earlier this year, Chin was a renewable energy intern at Resource Efficient Agricultural Production (REAP-Canada), raising awareness about clean cooking and promoting, distributing, and providing technical support for improved cookstoves in Senegal.

Iwas born and raised in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, Canada, and am the eldest of four children. I always liked school and had a particular interest in math and science, which led me to engineering. I initially chose to study bioresource engineering because of its response to pressing environmental issues. However, during a family vacation in the Dominican Republic, I saw rural families trying to sell fruit by the roadside. My first impression was that this didn’t make sense: how could these families meet their basic needs by selling fruit on the side of a little-used road? I then realized that this was an example of poverty—my first such experience in a developing country—and I became more aware of the need to address this issue.

That realization led me to pursue a minor in International Development Studies, and I discovered opportunities to help alleviate poverty through additional experiences, starting with an internship in India. More recently, I completed an eight-month internship with Resource Efficient Agricultural Production (REAP-Canada). After attending the 2013 Clean Cooking Forum in Cambodia, I traveled to Senegal to work with a local NGO, the Comité Local de Concertation des Organisations de Producteurs (CLCOP).

Senegal was the first African country that I visited. Previously, my ideas about Africa were a result of influences from the mass media, which is to say that I didn’t have a realistic idea of what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised by what I found. At first, the adjustments were a lot to handle— the unrelenting dry heat, which made me sick, the new foods (lots of fish and onions!), and being a total stranger to the local language (Wolof). Thankfully, with time and effort, life in this new place started to come together. Senegal is known as the country of teranga—hospitality—and I definitely felt it! Living among strangers didn’t feel totally weird, either. From the first day, my compound-mates taught me local words and helped my integration into village life.

REAP-Canada’s Improved Cookstove Program, of which I was a part, develops innovative, efficient stoves to fight deforestation and poverty. Check out the organization at: As the REAP website says:
“Throughout the developing world, many women use open fires with solid fuels, including firewood, dung, and charcoal, for cooking purposes. Although practical in their simplicity, these fires have poor combustion efficiency, require a significant amount of fuel to cook a meal, and negatively impact women’s health. As the global population continues to grow, the environmental and health impacts will also continue to grow unless a better alternative is developed and adopted. The importance of improved cookstoves first became apparent to REAP during their agricultural development project in the Philippines in 1998. REAP began to develop improved cookstoves after seeing an alarming reliance on firewood and charcoal, which is not only very costly but also results in widespread deforestation and environmental degradation. In the Philippines, there were abundant piles of agricultural residues in rural communities, so REAP and local partners began by developing a locally appropriate stove that could burn these as a fuel, thereby solving both a fuel and a waste problem.”

REAP has designed two improved cookstoves that bring many benefits to the women who use them and to the surrounding environment. These benefits include efficiency, affordability, environmental friendliness, simplicity, local resource use, versatility, and participatory design. All of REAP’s stoves are designed by experts to maximize their combustion quality, which saves on fuel and reduces smoke.

A primary factor involved in stove design is affordability, and with improved combustion efficiency, users also save money and time that would be spent acquiring fuel. REAP’s cookstoves are designed either to burn agricultural residues instead of wood, or to burn wood more efficiently. This means that communities that use these cookstoves can reduce their negative impact on local forests and the environment while also lowering emissions and reducing women’s and children’s exposure to smoke.

In addition, REAP’s stoves are built in-country using local resources and workmanship. The simple designs mean that women are able to adopt the stoves and learn to use them easily. Burning local agricultural residues, which are abundantly available, means that women spend less time gathering fuel and less money purchasing fuel.

The elegance of REAP’s cookstoves is that their simplicity is accompanied by versatility. They can burn multiple fuels, they can cook a variety of meals quickly, and each stove is custom-built for a family’s needs. Stove users also play an important role in developing locally appropriate, improved stove designs through needs assessments and user evaluation trials. This review process is crucial for local acceptance of any new technology.

To ensure that the improved cookstoves are popular and are used to their full potential, REAP conducts on-site stove demonstrations and community awareness meetings with local partners while also collecting feedback from users in order to improve the program and the stoves. To date, REAP has designed two improved cookstoves: the Mayon Turbo Stove (MTS) and the REAP Clay Brick Stove, known locally as the Noflay (or “no problem”) stove.

The Mayon Turbo Stove
The vast majority of rural households in developing countries still rely on biofuels for cooking, including firewood, charcoal, and crop residues such as cereal straws, corn cobs, and coconut husks and shells. However, incomplete combustion of this biomass can produce pollution levels in the home that exceed the most polluted industrial cities. Fossil fuels, such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) and kerosene, are also used, but they are increasingly unaffordable for impoverished families.

As an alternative, the mountains of surplus rice hulls found throughout south and southeast Asia and in other developing regions can be used as a convenient, low-cost cooking fuel. In the Philippines, for example, more than 1.5 million tonnes (1.6 million tons) of unwanted rice hulls are discarded or burned as waste every year.

Inspired by the Philippines’ Mayon Volcano, the Mayon Turbo Stove has a “perfect cone” shape that allows clean, efficient combustion of rice hulls. The MTS is also a multifuel stove and can burn mixtures of peanut shells and millet husks. Over the past few years, REAP-Canada and its local partners have distributed 5,000 rice-hull stoves in the Philippines. REAP is now stepping up efforts to introduce this technology internationally.

Given that rice is the world’s primary food crop and is produced in many developing nations where households currently rely on firewood, charcoal, or LPG for fuel, the MTS has the potential to reduce cooking costs, slow deforestation, improve air quality, and reduce the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of rural communities around the world.

The REAP Clay Brick Stove
In rural west Africa, over 90% of the energy requirements are currently met with wood, which is commonly burned using three-stone open fires. This form of combustion is inefficient and requires large amounts of fuel. Already, 90% of west Africa’s forests have been depleted, with much of this wood being used for fuel. Furthermore, the three-stone method produces harmful indoor air pollution, increases the time spent gathering fuel, and emits large amounts of GHG. The REAP Improved Clay Brick Stove, known locally as the Noflay stove, was designed to address these issues.

The Noflay stove is a culturally appropriate, low-priced stove made from local materials. It reduces fuel consumption and indoor air pollution and improves cooking convenience and safety. The stove uses a simple design that includes a combustion chamber and an outer wall. The combustion chamber is made of fired clay bricks arranged in an open triangular shape that reduces excess air, allows the fire to reach higher temperatures, and acts as a pot support. The outer wall uses non-fired bricks that surround the combustion chamber and cooking pot. This increases the thermal insulation, reduces the risk of burns, and provides secondary air for complete combustion.

REAP-Canada and its local partners are currently installing 2,000 Noflay stoves in rural communities throughout Gambia and Senegal. Noflay installation requires a well coordinated series of activities, including community sensitization, mason training, transporting bricks to communities for the construction of a prototype in the village leader’s compound, stove demonstration and training, determination of subsequent demand, coordination and transportation of bricks and materials to the community, and monitoring and evaluation to ensure quality control. REAP is continuing to look for more international communities in which to implement the Noflay stove.

My role in this effort
My internship in Senegal focused on improving the quality of the Noflay stove. I looked for higher-quality clays that could better withstand the high cooking temperatures and hold the weight of the full cooking pots. A typical week consisted of visiting different villages to collect clay samples, preparing different clay mixtures (clay and lime, cooked and non-cooked), making bricks, allowing them to dry, preparing mortar, and building stoves.

Getting to the remote field sites was not easy, and frequent visits were necessary to transport clay and other materials. Despite the challenges, we built five test stoves, each with different clay brick and/or mortar compositions, and they are now being monitored for their long-term quality. So far, the cooked clay samples have turned a reddish color, the desired objective, indicating that a reliable source of clay has finally been found. The quality of the stove is improved by stronger clay bricks.

Overall, I have received positive feedback from the stove users. The women who use the Noflay stove told me that they need very little wood now as compared to the traditional three-stone fire, and there is less smoke and consequently better health and comfort while they are cooking.

Household cooking is one of the most important global energy issues, and it has a major impact on both human health and the landscape ecology of developing nations. As a result, there is a pressing need to improve the conditions faced by the millions of rural poor in the world, to reduce their household cooking expenses and to improve their indoor air quality.

As the population grows and more tropical forest land is converted to agricultural use, rural villagers are beginning to rely more heavily on agricultural residues for fuel. For these reasons, the development of a cooking system that uses crop residues, produced in a sustainable manner, is of great consequence to many developing nations. The MTS and the Noflay stove are two profoundly simple solutions that meet this need. As an engineer, I love simplicity.

ASABE member Rebecca Chin, Graduate Student and Junior Engineer, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada,

Advantages of the Mayon Turbo Stove
• High efficiency and clean combustion: High-quality, swirling blue flames are created from the twin primary air injectors and in the extended inner cone with secondary air holes.
• Economy: Average annual cooking costs and stove purchase is approximately $15 to $20 US for the MTS, compared to $60 to $200 US for cooking with purchased firewood, charcoal, or LPG.
• Fast boiling: 1 L (about 1 qt) of water can boil in 6 to 7 minutes.
• Convenience: Tapping to introduce new fuel is required only every 7 to 10 minutes.
• Low fuel consumption: Approximately 25 kg (55 lbs) of rice hulls per family per week.
• Portability: Steel construction allows the MTS, which weighs only 4 kg (9 lbs), to be used indoors or outdoors.
• Multiple fuels: Other biofuels can be used in conjunction with rice hulls, including corn cobs, peanut shells, cocoa shells, crushed coconut shells, millet husks, and sawdust.
• Safety: A ring-shaped holder provides excellent pot stability.
• Holistic use of fuel: The ashes can be reused as a soil conditioner, fertilizer, and pest repellent around plants.

Advantages of the Noflay Stove
• High efficiency and clean combustion: High combustion temperatures are maintained by restricted and preheated air; secondary air holes allow further combustion.
• Economy: The cost of production is approximately $10 US per stove, and the stove greatly reduces the typical annual cooking cost of $60 to $200 US for purchased firewood. Since the stove is produced locally, it provides an economic opportunity for local producers.
• Fast boiling: 5 L (1.3 gal) of water can boil in 17 to 20 minutes.
• Convenience: The stove requires very little maintenance, and its internal combustion chamber resembles the traditional three-stone fire, which reduces the need for user training.
• Lower fuel consumption: Due to more efficient combustion, the stove requires less fuel. Small sticks, which typically burn too quickly in open fires, can be used as a reliable fuel source.
• Safety: The stove’s outer wall protects the home from fire, and it protects small children from falling or crawling onto the fire. There is no risk of an adult or child knocking over a boiling pot.
• Use of locally available materials: All the materials for the Noflay stove can be sourced locally, which reduces dependence on outside materials or expertise and maintains a focus on the local economy.