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Project Gaia is a US based non-profit that promotes clean, safe, efficient cookstoves powered by alcohol fuels. Project Gaia works in Africa, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Daniel Seals sits down with Brady Luceno, Assistant Director of Project Gaia, to discuss how she got started in this field and the challenges Project Gaia has faced in pursuing a clean cooking solution for communities around the world.

Daniel: When did you start working with Project Gaia?

Brady: I began working with Project Gaia in January 2009 after graduating from Gettysburg College. At that point Project Gaia was already five years into our work in Ethiopia, mainly in the Somali refugee camps, so we needed staff on the ground to work in the camps and strengthen our relationship with the Ethiopian government.

Daniel: Why did you decide to enter the clean cooking sector?

Brady: As a globalisation studies major, I was able to not only study numerous issues that affect communities and citizens around the world, but travel to areas where I experienced firsthand the energy challenges our generation must tackle. The issue of cooking is an issue I feel everyone can relate to and it cuts across all sectors from pubic health and the environment to women’s empowerment and livelihoods.

Daniel: Tell me more about your work in the refugee camps.

Brady: The projects in the refugee camps really transitioned Project Gaia from a policy and research entity to an implementing organisation. Ethiopia, like many sugar producing countries, produces sugar from sugarcane, but was dumping its waste molasses, a byproduct. In 2003, the government decided to act and saw the opportunity to turn waste molasses into fuel for cooking with our help. We were already working with a stove, the Dometic CleanCook that fit the Somali cooking culture very well. Within two years, we were able to reach nearly 100% coverage in two of the largest Somali refugee camps in Ethiopia.

Daniel: Were the challenges you experienced in the first few years at Project Gaia the challenges you were expecting to encounter?

Brady: My first experiences were mostly focused on research and information gathering on fuel prices and cooking habits in relation to the CleanCook stove. I thought my initial job would be to find a way to get more stoves to families. It wasn’t until I was able to talk openly with women in their kitchens, on my first trip to Ethiopia, that I realised fuel supply was the key issue.

Daniel: What shifted your focus to the fuel supply?

Brady: We had been in collaboration with the Ethiopian Government to supply the camps with ethanol fuel for cooking for the last five years. On my very first trip to speak with women in their homes, I realised that the government was in the process of halting the supply to the camps due to ethanol blending opportunities for the transportation sector. I was hearing all of this positive feedback about the stove and how the women’s lives had improved, but harboring the knowledge that the fuel supply would be interrupted for these families very soon. It was a frustrating and enlightening moment for me in the project. We began to realise that we couldn’t just be a stove organisation, but we had to be a fuel organisation first and foremost.

We needed to look at innovative ways for communities to have sustainable access to fuel. We strengthened our relationships with global ethanol producers as well as investigated small-scale production units. In order for our stove projects to be successful, ethanol had to be available at the household level, as affordable and reliable as traditional fuels. We began to see that the local production was a great option for countries and communities to have a renewable and modern fuel while also adding great social and economic value. So, in Ethiopia we began building micodistillery units, owned and operated within communities.

Daniel: Would you say fuel is the only barrier to widespread stove use? What about stove

compatibility?

Brady: Fuel is the first barrier. The second barrier is the supply chain for fuel. The third is financing an affordable, modern, and durable stove for the end-user. If you have those three things in place you will have a successful programme. We work with educated consumers who deserve and recognise quality goods. The stove has never been the issue for us. It is efficient, safe, long lasting and cooks quickly. It is always popular. What families are concerned with is access to a fuel that is reliably available, affordable, safe and modern.

People want modern stoves, and by modern stoves we really mean modern fuels. A modern fuel is clean and accessible and brings value to people’s lives.

Daniel: What value do modern fuels bring to families?

Brady: Besides the health and environmental benefits, time savings is a huge and underestimated benefit when we talk about value. Women, children and men get back time, time that would normally be spent collecting fuel, tending solid fuel fires and preparing meals. When we think of socioeconomic development at the community and country level, we must promote products that make people’s lives easier.

Daniel: Where have you been working with ethanol producers to address the fuel supply issue?

Brady: Haiti used to be a major ethanol producer. Due to cheap sugar imports, the local market bottomed out in the 1990s. We pursued major ethanol producers (outside of Haiti) to help jumpstart a market in Haiti with the end goal being to revive the sugarcane market for both food and fuel. We think major producers can play a key role in the supply chain and provide needed support, expertise and quality fuel. We are also working with experts on ethanol fuel policy around the globe.

Daniel: So is the goal local production of fuel?

Brady: Yes. For us and the existing ethanol industry that must be the goal. Ethanol can easily be made out of by- products often side-by-side with food production. Wherever we can reduce the cost of bringing fuel to the end user we are going to pursue it. In ethanol, we have a chance to create markets, jobs, and provide an alternative fuel that is truly renewable.

Daniel: What challenges does Project Gaia face once the fuel is available?

Brady: The supply chain is the linchpin for us: finding a way that is convenient and reliable for families to access fuel. Each country has its own supply network, its own way of doing business.
The trick for us is to incorporate ethanol into that system. In Ethiopia, Haiti or many of the other countries where we work, poor people pay the most for energy since they are often purchasing fuel daily. This is reflected in the prices of the small bags of charcoal which cost much more than the larger sacks. On a day by day basis, LPG is actually more affordable than charcoal in some of these markets, like Haiti, but people cannot afford the bulk purchase of the cylinder. Our goal is to try and mimic supply chains that reach the base of the pyramid, like charcoal. We can achieve this by selling ethanol by the half litre, or in five litre containers. One litre can typically last one or two days for a family of five. The challenge for us is to actually implement these distribution chains, since the market for alcohol fuel is new.

In some countries where we work, alcohol fuel is only classified as a beverage, and therefore receives the same high taxes as drinking alcohol. For example, Kenya is a major ethanol producer but until recently you could not purchase ethanol for stove fuel. Beverage alcohol receives a 120% tax. The ethanol we use in stoves is denatured with a bittering agent and dyed, which renders the fuel undrinkable. In all the countries where we work, we try to influence policymakers to recognise alcohol as a cooking fuel. For the most part, we believe ethanol is afforable in local markets and does not need to be subsidised, however we do need to make sure that alcohol fuel for cooking is not taxed differently than perhaps kerosene or LPG (which are still subsidised in many countries).

Daniel: Beyond your work with ethanol, what barriers have you seen to clean cooking solutions?

Brady: Each project and organisation inherently has its unique issues to overcome. But that is why we must continue to work, share, think and evolve together. On a global scale, I think our reliance on wood has escalated far greater than we are willing to admit. The forests are disappearing out from under us. I couldn’t feel more strongly that the time is now to focus on creating systems that encourage the use of truly renewable sources of energy. We’ve received criticism that our fuels approach is a ‘long term’ and not a ‘low hanging fruit’ solution for consumers. I disagree. These solutions are ready now and they have the opportunity to offer some of the greatest long term benefits. Think how much more quickly this could happen if more of us broadened our focus from the cookstove to the fuel.

Pictures

Picture 1: Boys carry cane waste for burning along sugar cane fields in Metahara, Ethiopia
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Picture 2: Women and children in Somali Regional State, Ethiopia, with the CleanCook stove
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  • A practitioner's journal on household energy, stoves and poverty reduction.