Friday, 12 December 2008

Cookstoves in the Economist

A recent Economist article covers biomass cooking stoves, explaining some of the challenges faced in designing them and making sure they actually get used:

If user demand were the sole driver of innovation, the biomass cooking stove would be one of the most sophisticated devices in the world. Depending on which development agency you ask, between two-and-a-half and three billion people—nearly half the world’s population—use a stove every day, in conjunction with solid fuel such as wood, dung or coal. Yet in many parts of the world the stove has barely progressed beyond the Stone Age.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that toxic emissions from cooking stoves are responsible for causing 1.6m premature deaths a year, half of them among children under five years old. In China 83m people will die from lung cancer and respiratory disease over the next 25 years, according to a recent report from Harvard University. Research from the University of California, Berkeley, on stoves in India, Guatemala and Mexico has found links between indoor air-pollution from stoves and increased incidence of pneumonia, cataracts and tuberculosis.
Even if they get the thermodynamics and materials right, designers must also make the devices compatible with local foodstuffs and cooking habits. A lot of the initial stove projects failed this test, says Daniel Kammen of Berkeley’s Energy Resources Group, who has worked on several stove projects in sub-Saharan Africa. A lack of field testing, he says, meant a lot of stoves were simply unsuited to users’ needs. The difference in cooking styles between countries, he says, can determine how—and whether—a new stove design ends up being used.
If such cultural factors are not taken into account, people will not use the stoves. Dr Wilson says just 3% of chimneys provided as part of one project in India were being used, according to a later survey: the rest had been either sold or reused as irrigation channels.

Read the full article in the Economist, and check out past Ashden Award winners who developed successful cookstoves.

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