The life-saving stoves

 By RP Siegel

Project Gaia is a multi-national effort to promote the use of alcohol cook stoves in the developing world. Thousands of people die every year due to smoke inhalation from wood and charcoal stoves that are often used indoors. Not only are alcohol stoves far cleaner and safer, they also promote self-reliance, as the fuel can be produced locally from biomass. They are also better for the environment. The group has projects all across Africa, as well as in Brazil and Haiti…

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Millions of people in developing regions still cook on campfires fueled by wood or charcoal. While this most primitive form of cooking gets the job done, it does so with numerous unintended costs. Not least of which are the health impacts of smoke inhalation, which claim more than 4 million lives every year. In addition, there is massive deforestation, carbon emissions and the plight of women who often venture into dangerous places to gather wood.

Our modern gas or electric stoves rely on an extensive energy delivery infrastructure that cannot be easily replicated. In the absence of that infrastructure, the ability to provide a clean, affordable, easy to use cooking solution with a robust supply chain has proven elusive.

One organization that has been working quietly and effectively in this space since 2005 is Project Gaia. Led by Harry Stokes, winner of the World Bioenergy Award in 2012 and the Eisenhower Humanitarian Award in 2013, they are currently providing alcohol-powered stoves in places as widespread as Haiti, Ethiopia and Nigeria. In that time they the organization has distributed nearly 58,000 stoves.

According to Stokes, the three critical aspects to their success are: technology, economic development and financing.

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Project Gaia is committed to the use of alcohol stoves as the best solution for the areas they work in. Not only is the fuel clean, producing flame properties similar to charcoal, but it is easier to start, turn off and adjust. Furthermore, both the stoves and the fuel can potentially be produced locally, providing significant economic opportunities in these largely impoverished regions.

Their preferred stove is made by CleanCook Sweden AB, which recently acquired Dometic. Each stove, according to Project Gaia, saves:

  • 9,125 cooking hours
  • Up to 90 tons of CO2
  • 1,270 trees
  • 20 charcoal stoves

People have produced alcohol from the distillation of plant-based starches for centuries. Feedstocks can range from grasses like corn and sugar cane, as well as sorghum, milo and cassava. Says Stokes, “We want to move fuel production from the forest to the farm.” Not only are liquid alcohol fuels cleaner burning, but they eliminate the massive deforestation and carbon emission that contribute substantially to climate change.

Other organizations, like the state department-sponsored Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves (GACC) seek to improve the cleanliness and efficiency of wood and charcoal fired stoves. According to Stokes, this is the wrong approach. First, the performance of these solid fuel stoves depends heavily on the conditioning and preparation of the fuel. If it is damp, or if the pieces are the wrong size, performance will suffer. There is still smoke while the question of deforestation and wood gathering still remain.

Raising crops for both food and energy is a positive step for economic development. Says Stokes, “It’s really about the communities on the ground and the farmers themselves, and ensuring we have that human agency by working directly with them and by allying with all the other key players to ensure both sustainability and scalability.”


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Here are a few examples of some of the projects this group has implemented. A micro-distillery in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia produces ethanol from molasses. The stoves are built by local workers. Another micro-distillery in Nigeria uses cassava as a feedstock to produce 200 liters (53 gallons) per ton.

A team arrived in Haiti a month after the earthquake. In this island country which was already 98% deforested, the price of charcoal had skyrocketed. Project Gaia partnered with ethanol-producer POET, stove producer Dometic and Novogaz, who will be organizing the distribution locally. The intent is to transition to local production of both fuels and stoves over time.

According to Brady Luceno, Assistant Director of Project Gaia. “Ethanol offers perhaps the greatest opportunity to revitalize the agriculture sector and offer families a clean and affordable alternative to charcoal.”

Project Gaia estimates if every home in the developing world that is currently using traditional solid fuels would switch to ethanol for cooking, it would save between 250 and 550 million forest acres per year. This is equivalent to the size of Alaska, California and Texas combined.

about the author
RP Siegel
Skilled writer. Technology, sustainability, engineering, energy, renewables, solar, wind, poverty, water, food. Studied both English Lit.and Engineering at university level. Inventor.