8.1 Understanding the Problem

Traditional Stove burning large logs.jpg

Over the past six years, Climate Healers’ collaboration with the University of Iowa on the Winterim[6] program has been a tremendous boon to our healing efforts. The Winterim program, the brainchild of Prof. Rajagopal Rangaswamy, connects students and faculty from the University of Iowa to social projects in India so that the students experience fieldwork first hand. In our site in Rajasthan, India, the students spend three weeks over winter break working with Climate Healers and the Foundation for Ecological Security on the cookstove problem. A faculty member accompanies the students as the Winterim project earns the students 3 credits as well. While we get the benefit of a fresh set of eyes considering the problem and helping with the experiments, the students experience village life in India, usually for the first time ever!

In December 2014, it was as if the stars all aligned and everything came together to make a significant dent on the cookstove problem. Not only did we have a great group of enthusiastic Winterim students - as always - but we also had a multi-disciplinary team of faculty members from the University of Iowa accompanying them. The students were a diverse bunch, with liberal arts, engineering and health majors: Amanda Dolan, Jennifer Lilly, Sophie Mallaro, Michael Werner, AJ Walker, Naveen Ninan, Tim Wichert, Rohit Banda, Aditya Chahande, Julia Julstrom-Agoyo, Amber Mahoney, Rachel Maggi and Samantha Shannon. The faculty members were funded by a seed grant from the Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research (CGRER) at the University of Iowa to conduct research on the cookstove problem. They were Prof. Paul Greenough, a historian, Prof. Jerry Anthony, an architect, Prof. Marc Linderman, a geographer, Prof. Meena Khandelwal, Prof. Matthew Hill and Misha Quill, anthropologists and Prof. UdayKumar, a mechanical engineer. In addition, Michele Del Viscio, a mechanical engineer from Italy, volunteered for Climate Healers during that winter, to represent the perspectives of industry[7]!

When such a multi-disciplinary team was assembled in the villages of Rajasthan, India, all intent on solving the problem, good things happened! At first, we were focused on just testing two representative HECs in the villages to understand why their uptake was so poor in India. These were the best-rated HECs on the market and they cost $20-30, but even the villagers who could afford motorbikes were not using them. The uptake of HECs has been very poor in most places around the world. In India, less than 4% of the wood burning stoves are HECs[8]!  This was a puzzle that we needed to first crack before we could attempt to solve the problem.

When compared to traditional “chulhas” (mud and brick stoves), HECs have several advantages. They have been designed scientifically with the best application of fluid mechanics and combustion principles to maximize the efficiency of the stove. In laboratory settings, these HECs do deliver the promised increased efficiency of up to 100% over traditional chulhas. We had to find out why real world performance did not match laboratory results.

The team conducted careful observations of the cooking process as the women of Karech and Gogunda tried to use the two HECs, labelled A and B. Through the gracious assistance of these women and the interpreters who helped us communicate with them, the main reasons for the poor uptake of these stoves in the villages of Rajasthan became quite clear. They are the following:

1. The commercial HECs don't accommodate the wide variety of wood fuel types that are available in Rajasthan. For instance, the HECs can't accept large pieces of wood without having them split lengthwise, which is very difficult for the women to do. When they face such a hurdle, the women tend to abandon these HECs since their chulhas have no such size limitation.

2. HEC Stove A heated the clay "tawa" (a vessel for cooking flatbreads called “rotis”) too much in the center and not enough at the edges with the result that the women had to constantly rotate the rotis, especially the corn rotis, in order to cook their meal. Perhaps as a result, Stove A was not nearly as efficient in its use of firewood for cooking as advertised.

3. The mouth of HEC Stove B was too large to fit the clay tawas used in Rajasthan, with the result that we had to jerry-rig a grill to hold the clay tawa in place. Perhaps as a result, much of the advertised efficiency of HEC Stove B could not be obtained as well.

4. The women identified some safety issues with the HECs. The metal sides of the HECs got hot as the cooking progressed and the women expressed concern that their children could burn themselves if they touched the sides. In contrast, the traditional chulhas were made of clay and were naturally insulated.

5. The HECs exhibited visible deterioration in the three-week duration of the testing. The women expressed concern that these metal stoves may not last long and would need to be replaced as opposed to the traditional chulhas which last a couple of years and can be rebuilt with local material.

6. The women typically slow burn a large log in their traditional chulha to provide heating for their homes during the winter. The HECs could not accommodate such a large log and therefore could not be used for home heating.

7. Though there were some savings in firewood use with the HECs, the women estimated the stoves were worth as little as one-fifth the actual retail price of the HECs. Even then, it appeared doubtful that the women would actually pay that reduced amount to acquire such HEC stoves.

Traditional chulhas vary in size and shape to accommodate the different types of cooking vessels and foods cooked in them across the world. Our experience in Rajasthan showed that a single HEC stove couldn’t possibly replace all these traditional stoves. Rather, significant fuelwood reductions can only be achieved with locally customizable solutions in different parts of the world. However, our tests with the HECs did confirm that they could reduce wood use significantly compared to the traditional chulhas. The low smoke effluence and main reductions in firewood use is due to the engineered airflow from below the fuel source in the HECs. Because it lacks such engineered airflow, the traditional chulha tends to accumulate embers that pile up and emit soot as they burn inefficiently due to a lack of oxygen. Overall, we measured anywhere from 30%-40% reductions in wood use with the HECs, when compared to the traditional chulha.


[6] http://bit.ly/1DksJPR

[7]  http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/237379

[8]  Dalberg Global Development Advisors. Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves: India Cookstoves and Fuels Market Assessment [online] (2013), http://bit.ly/1ZFisLf