Human

Kitchen revolution

 By Simona Manna

In the Republic of Congo approximately 80% of the population cook using the tradition “three stones” method, a system that involves a waste of resources and health risks. Eni, which has invested in the country for years by promoting access to modern energy services, is conducting a project that could change the lives of Congolese families. It involves the creation of “improved stoves”, which would make cooking food safer…

In “developed” countries, the kitchen is Masterchef, increasingly elaborate recipes, and the eternal debate on separating carbohydrates from protein. In all other countries, and primarily in Africa, the kitchen is a flame surrounded by three stones, over which stands a steaming pot: inside – with little to debate – is the food that it has been possible to put together. The real problem, however, is not just “to make ends meet” but primarily the risk taken every day by cooking with traditional systems, i.e. using wood or charcoal, the poor combustion of which produces fumes that are very damaging to health. In the Republic of Congo, approximately 80% of the population cook using the traditional “three-stones” method. Eni, which has invested in the country for years to promote access to modern energy services, is conducting a project that could change the lives of Congolese families. This involves the creation of “improved stoves”, which would make cooking safer, reducing the effects on people’s health. Stoves that, if everything goes to plan, will then be reproducible on site, creating the basis of a local entrepreneurship.

 

The aims of the project

“The idea came from the Access to Energy project, which was part of the United Nations Sustainable Energy for All initiative,” explains Francesca Ferrazza, Vice President of R&D on Renewables and Environment at Eni, where the design office is and in which the prototype of the improved stove was conceived and physically created. “Initially, the project was commissioned to the Polytechnic University of Milan,” she explains “but then it was fully passed on to us. However, the Polytechnic developed the prototype design and assembly manual of the stove.” A “necessary” device, she points out, given that “typically, in this setting, the tools are pretty rudimentary and cooking is often also performed indoors, in huts, without any air vent”.

These are the aims behind the project, as Jacopo Tonziello, an engineer who also works in R&D Renewables and Environment at Eni and who created the prototype, tells us:

  • SAFETY: reduce emissions and gases that are harmful to human health, primarily carbon monoxide (CO) and particulates;
  • EFFICIENCY: find an improved technological solution for cooking by increasing the thermal efficiency of the device;
  • SUSTAINABILITY: use less biomass in the combustion process by reducing CO2 emissions and therefore reducing the overall environmental footprint;
  • AUTONOMY: use materials that can also be found on site, to ensure the easy construction or repair of stoves.

The result is an L-shaped cylindrical structure, upon which can sit a medium-sized pot. There are actually two models, as Tonziello explains: “a refined version in steel and one made entirely from recycled material, with the idea that it can be constructed on site using recycled material”. These prototypes are currently being tested at the Eni research center in Bolgiano, with the aim of distinguishing the stoves in terms of emissions and thermal efficiency during cooking. So far, the results have been excellent: thermal efficiency increases by approximately 30% compared with the three-stones system, while emissions are significantly reduced in terms of carbon monoxide (-50%) and particulates (-75%).

The prototype of the improved stove

An idea for a start-up

Once set up, over the coming months the improved stove will be tested directly on site by families or facilities such as schools or hospitals, as part of the Hinda project (launched by Eni in the area around the M’Boundi onshore oil field in the Congolese district of Hinda, which involves 22 villages with a total population of over 25,000), to assess the project’s adaptability to the environment and local culture.

Simultaneously, Congolese artisans will be sought who are able to build these stoves independently: selected and trained by Eni staff, they will create a start-up, or rather a cooperative that will produce and market the stoves in Congo. The idea is that as early as 2017 this start-up could become a reality. “We have developed a small manual for construction and assembly,” explains Francesca Ferrazza, “so that artisans will then be able to work by themselves”.

Of course the launch of the start-up is dependent on an assessment of the technical and economic feasibility for on-site construction and sale: an assessment that will take place during these months of testing and comparison with the local situation. The viability of the project is also expected to have significant economic effects: it would create local entrepreneurship, promoting and supporting the economic growth of local microenterprises and, on a small scale within each family, it would ensure a saving because the improved stove consumes less charcoal than traditional systems.

The stove is easy to assemble in just a few steps. As planned by the project, this will enable the creation of a cooperative of craftsmen in the future who, with the help of a manual, will be able to build it independently

Access to energy

This also means fighting energy poverty and developing tools that consume fewer environmental resources and increase the time available for other activities. A thermoelectric generator can be added to each stove, which converts part of the heat produced into electricity. Put simply, it is a useful source of energy, for instance, for charging cell phones (even though Africa is one of the poorest continents, cell phones are extremely widespread) or powering an LED bulb that lights up in the evening, allowing children to also study once the sun sets. It’s just a few watts, but these are essential if we consider areas where lighting is a luxury for few people…

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about the author
Simona Manna
Professional journalist since 2003 and born and bred in Sardinia. After several work experiences (Corriere della Sera, Il manifesto, El País), she currently works for news agency AGI and collaborates consistently with Oil Magazine and the Abo.net we portal.