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Repackaging the efficient stove as the ‘solution’ to crises in Darfur
Authors: Samer Abdelnour
Issue 59: Energy in Conflict and Emergency Relief


In 2004, advocacy and development organizations began to promote fuel-efficient stoves (FES) in Darfur as a means to reduce the risk of rape and other forms of gender-based violence (GBV). Many assumed that stoves requiring less fuel would reduce the risk of violence by decreasing the time women and girls spend venturing outside internally displaced people (IDP) camps collecting fuelwood (RI 2005).

Initial optimism surrounding the use of FES as a tool to reduce rape risk has faded, and it is now known that stove initiatives are questionable at best in their ability to prevent the risk of rape (RI 2007). It is yet unclear whether the failure of FES to reduce the risk of GBV is specific to the FES technologies employed, or the way in which FES programmes were implemented. What is certain, however, is that many IDPs were unable to realise energy efficiencies from complex stoves and where efficiencies did exist fuelwood remained in demand as a means for income generation. Even after questions regarding the effectiveness of FES as a means to reduce GBV began to emerge, some advocacy and development organisations continued to promote stoves as a solution for sexual violence. In addition, few international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Darfur openly consider the implications of interventions for GBV inside IDP camps, or sexual/domestic violence more broadly.

Remarkably, the promotion of stoves as a panacea for sexual violence in Darfur is but part of a 40-year history of repackaging stoves as the solution to crises in Sudan. This article provides an overview of the repackaging FES in Sudan/Darfur, raises questions as to the effectiveness of presenting stoves as a solution to complex social and environmental challenges, and presents themes and implications for consideration.

Women potters show their goods in El Fasher, North Darfur, August 2008 (Photo: Samer Abdelnour)

Forty years of fuel-efficient stove solutions in Sudan

The history of FES in Sudan can be traced through three crises: energy, health, and sexual violence. Each is presented chronologically.

Energy crisis

"For huge numbers of people, fuelwood will be increasingly scarce and expensive. And no alternative fuels are in sight that could relieve this deepening crisis" (Eckholm et al. 1984: 13).

As a result of the 1973 oil/energy/fuelwood crisis, global concern motivated bilateral agencies, international NGOs, research institutes, and governments to seek a solution to impending deforestation in low income countries. Fears that the poor would not be able to afford the conversion from fuelwood to petroleum energy did not escape Sudan. In 1979 the Khartoum-based Sudanese Society for the Advancement of Sciences (SSAS) began a project to design and test metallic charcoal stoves, versions of which are still in use today. In 1983, the work of SSAS was absorbed by Sudan's Energy Research Council (ERC). ERC was created in 1980 by Sudan's National Energy Administration (NEA) with financial assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Also in 1983, Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere (CARE) imported a metal-ceramic stove design from Kenya and began experimenting with designs in El Obeid, Kurdofan.

After initial failures, ERC helped CARE improve their approach by marketing the stove through contests and contracts involving local artisans and entrepreneurs. At the suggestion of USAID, a Kenyan artisan entrepreneur was brought to assist with this process. The resulting market-oriented intervention saw efficient stoves gaining acceptance and wide dissemination. Based on this success, CARE was awarded a grant by ERC in the mid-1980s to extend experimentation with FES across Kurdofan and Darfur, including the development of the first mud stoves (Gamser 1988). CARE's first experiments with mud stoves were also seen as a failure due to unsuccessful acceptance by the women working with the projects; however, years later and without NGO engagement modified mud stoves were produced and sold through local markets, often by the same women involved in the initial CARE projects (based on an interview with a NGO official who had been part of the initial CARE FES projects). In the end, the promise of stoves to prevent deforestation did not materialise, although general benefits of the stoves were recognised.

"Blithe claims that new stoves are reducing wood consumption by half are simply unsupportable. Less dramatic savings could still provide ample justification for stove-promotion activities, particularly when the health benefits are taken into account" (Eckholm et al. 1984: 95).

Health crisis

The global push to promote FES in the 1980s led to stove interventions in almost every low income country, creating ample opportunity to collect evidence of their effects. One positive benefit of FES technology is the reduction in indoor air pollution and smoke inhalation. This served as a platform for the global promotion of FES in the 1990s as a solution to improve the health and living conditions for up to half of the world's population (WRI 1999).

"The smoke from burning these fuels turns kitchens in the world's poorest countries into death traps. Indoor air pollution from the burning of solid fuels kills over 1.6 million people, predominately women and children, each year. This is more than three people per minute" (Warwick and Doig 2004: 6).

As a result, from the mid-1990s into the early 2000s, international NGOs and United Nations (UN) agencies promoted a call to action to address the risks of indoor air pollution. Global awareness of the smoke and health pandemic made its way into FES programming across low income countries, including Sudan. The first programme in Sudan to address the health concerns of cooking promoted liquid petroleum gas (LPG) stoves (ITDG Sudan 2003). However, the momentum associated with the July 2003 launch of Sudan first "Smoke and Health" programme in Kassala would be upstaged by violent armed conflict in Darfur.

Sexual violence crisis

The humanitarian crisis and widespread incidence of GBV motivated urgency among advocacy groups, international agencies and NGOs. When the call to action came, FES were once again positioned as a solution for an emerging crisis.

"By reducing the need for wood and emission of smoke, a switch to simple, more fuel-efficient stoves could reduce the time women spend collecting wood, a task that exposes them to the risk of rape and other forms of gender-based violence" (RI 2005: 1).

The call inspired intense interest in FES programming, in part because it offered a deliverable technology as a solution for protecting vulnerable women and girls in Darfur. At the time the statement was released, a handful of actors were involved in the promotion, production, and dissemination of mud stoves for Darfur. FES mud programmes were seen as complementary to humanitarian relief efforts, and by late 2004 numerous international NGOs entered into Darfur with their own initiatives or partnered with existing programmes. They brought with them a diverse array of FES technologies including mud, brick, metal and solar designs for IDPs in Darfur and Darfuri refugees in Chad. Simultaneously, development aid to Sudan and in particular for Darfur increased rapidly (to US$1.78b in 2005), providing motivation and resources for international NGOs and UN agencies seeking to provide services to an estimated 1.8 million IDPs (Abdelnour and Branzei 2010).

When reports began to emerge contradicting anecdotal evidence that FES was effective for protecting IDP women and girls, some advocacy organisations retracted the claim that FES is a solution to GBV risk in Darfur. At the same time, possible benefits from using the stoves were positioned front-and-centre.

"While there is little evidence that producing fuel-efficient stoves reduces violence against women, the best fuel-efficient stoves did produce other benefits for women. Given the quality of living benefits that fuel-efficient stove programs may bring in relation to their cost, the international community should continue to promote them but not solely or even principally as a protection measure against sexual violence but as a vital part of a holistic response to the urgent environmental and humanitarian issues confronting the conflict-affected peoples of Darfur" (RI 2007: 18).

Learning from history

A number of themes and implications can be drawn from the 40-year history of efficient stoves in Sudan, and in particular the more recent history of FES in Darfur. These include the technology-user tension, the reliance on anecdotal evidence, and the limitations of existing models of relief/development.

Technology-user tension

The technology-user tension emerged particularly strong with FES programmes in Darfur because higher efficiency was assumed to correlate with greater reduction in rape risk. As a result, the fuel-efficiency of the stove became more central than usability for many NGOs. Pressures to achieve maximum effectiveness through efficiency came at many costs. In most FES programming for Darfur, there was limited assessment of basic market dynamics, user preferences and needs, or engagement of local actors and beneficiaries in the design and marketing of complex stoves.

"Overemphasis on technology, without concurrent work on behavioural change, market access and health impacts, resulted in limited results and unsustainability of many projects" (USAID 2005: 7).

The Darfur case provides important lessons for those interested in promoting stoves as a means to accumulate carbon offsets or reduce conflict in emergency and relief contexts (Eltayeb 2010; Urban and Lind 2010). Carbon offsets, like GBV, can motivate technological efficiency as a primary goal of FES programming. Donors, policymakers, advocacy organisations, and NGOs interested in FES as a carbon tool should prepare for the unintended consequences of pursuing such an agenda in terms of user acceptability, local market suitability, and project sustainability.

"Despite their current popularity and promise, I have little energy for what amounts to a carbon-funded project rescue package. Any business model that requires permanent, external funding with exorbitant monitoring and evaluation overheads is doomed once the money stops. Selling a US$40 stove containing US$25 worth of metal for US$7 is simply begging artisans to tear them apart to access the cheap raw material" (Pemberton-Pigott 2008).

Producing metal stoves in Nyala, South Darfur, July 2008 (Photo: Samer Abdelnour)

Reliance on anecdotal evidence

Advocacy groups and NGOs were central in elevating the urgency for promoting FES in Darfur. Many of these organisations used personal stories taken from the beneficiaries of their own programmes for advocacy and marketing efforts. These stories are extremely important and relevant; however, it is widely known that communities receiving or hoping to receive aid are often uncritical of interventions even when flawed in design or approach. Anecdotal evidence presented by development and relief organisations, in particular when used for securing funds and political advocacy, raises deeper questions of ethics and accountability (Ebrahim 2003). For example, some organisations used anecdotal evidence in marketing materials targeting concerned citizens in western countries, implying that the prevention of rape could be accomplished through a simple donation to a FES project. Many of these fundraising programmes continued even after questions emerged regarding the ability for FES to reduce the risk of rape in Darfur. NGOs should exercise caution when claiming to address serious and complex societal injustices through the provision of stoves or other technology solutions.

In addition, some of the organisations involved in Darfur FES interventions published their own studies promoting the efficiency and acceptability of their own programmes over competing technologies (Practical Action Sudan 2007; Amrose et al. 2008). Two wider and comprehensive assessments examined the majority of stove technologies promoted in Darfur. One study was supported by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the other by a number of UN agencies and an NGO involved in one of the larger FES programmes in Sudan. These studies used different methodologies and sampling methods leading to varying results and implications, leaving many unanswered questions as to the most appropriate technologies for use in Darfur. The only certainty is that mud-stoves appear to have been more readily acceptable by women in Darfur for numerous reasons, and that efficient-stoves generally result in some yet unmeasured positive social and environmental benefits (AED/USAID 2008; ProAct 2008).

An overreliance on anecdotal evidence suggests a need for diverse, independent, and ongoing research when assessing the suitability of particular technologies or programming. Research partnerships for development can increase the research capacity of partners and stakeholders, and prove valuable for informing policy and practice in Sudan (McGrath and Abdelnour 2010). Furthermore, it is important to understand the historical experience of development interventions in order to appropriately assess them. This is a central goal of two Sudan specific research projects, including a university-NGO initiative to explore the historical experience and future potential of technical and vocational rehabilitation for Southern Sudan, and a detailed case history of a marginalised community of tradesmen with an NGO partner in North Darfur (Atari et al. 2010; Abdelnour 2011).

Limitations of existing models of relief/development

The historical experience of FES in Sudan draws attention to the limits of relief and development interventions for addressing substantial social and environmental crises. In the case of Darfur, the response to the epidemic of GBV helped mobilise tremendous support for FES programming. Promoting technological interventions as a solution to reduce GBV created illusions of hope which, based upon history, predictably failed to meet promised expectations. The urgency associated with addressing the crisis of GBV pushed some NGOs to deliver relatively expensive technologies at little or no cost. As a result, displaced women warehoused in urban camps accessible to NGOs often received multiple stoves, while those at inaccessible rural camps went without.

Evidence suggests that the potential benefits of FES will not be realised without engaging longer-term, culturally acceptable and local market approaches. CARE's early stove failures from the mid-1980s provide key lessons for the future of FES in Sudan. By realigning programmes to ensure participation of local artisans and entrepreneurs, CARE was able to help create technologies that could spread through local markets. More interesting are CARE's mud stove 'failures', the designs of which were eventually modified and successfully marketed by local entrepreneurs.

"The impact of any programme will remain very limited as long as it depends on the efforts of outside promoters. The large-scale diffusion of stoves can take place only through continually expanding programme. In practice this means that the stove model introduced must be the one that local entrepreneurs or users themselves are willing to build without outside assistance" (Eckholm et al. 1984: 97).

Concluding remarks

40 years of FES in Sudan provides ample fuel for reflection. Viewing the repackaging of FES through the lens of multiple crises raises a number of discomforting questions. Doing so also recognises the diversity of interests and motivations among donors, NGOs, advocacy groups, scientists, designers and researchers. Taking these into consideration with the needs and desires of the user-beneficiary as central may reveal opportunities for improved FES programming. In particular, lessons from FES interventions in Darfur suggest a need for enhanced donor/NGO coordination, monitoring and assessment, standardised testing, quality assurance, user acceptance, and engagement of local market actors. Importantly, FES stakeholders might take an opportunity to consider their own experiences; lest stoves are once again repackaged as an infeasible solution to impending crises.


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Last edited by Christopher Hughes , based on work by Thalia Konaris , Samer Abdelnour , raffaella , Miriam Hansen and maur000 .
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