| Boiling Point No. 22 - August 1990 |
by Emma Crewe, Social Scientist, Fuel for Food/Biomass Programme ITDG
Third world people's ingenious and multiple use of their traditional resources is not always recognised by urban or expatriate stove "experts". Many planners have difficulty in overcoming their bias towards highly specialized technology. In their own kitchens, a gas oven bakes, an oil fired radiator warms the room and an electric kettle boils water. Attention in improved stove work is directed towards one function only - fuel efficient cooking. However, people in the third world make use of one resource for many purposes as can be clearly seen in their use of trees and fire.
Trees are not only used for fuel and building construction, they also constitute a major source of wood, spices, medicine, animal fodder, thatch and raw materials such as oils, resins, rubber, waxes, rattans for local industries including furniture and mat making, basketry, carving and boat building. For village women, trees are highly multifunctional. Nevertheless, it is only women's role as fuelwood consumers and alleged tree-fellers that has received much attention in forestry development policies.
In a similar way, improved stoves were originally promoted as energy- efficient, fuel saving cooking devices which would slow down the rate of deforestation. There was little recognition of the many other functions of the three stone fires they were designed to replace. The open fire serves many purposes: the fire is often a focal point for social life, entertainment and rituals, the flames provide light, the heat cooks, warms, dries fuel, food and clothes and the smoke controls pests and enhances the flavour of food. The soot can seal a thatched roof and lengthen its life. The heat is also needed for boiling or heating water, for brewing liquor and for preparing animal foods.
Domestic fires have many uses for small businesses, some of which give independence and status to women: African roadside plantain grilling, Indian sweetmeat stalls, fish smoking, preparing herbal medicines, salt production, silk reeling. In Africa the 3 stones are sometimes regarded as housing family spirits or as a symbol of a united family. The traditional 3 stone fire has been known to fulfil all these needs, making it the most versatile, even though not the most fuel efficient, woodburning stove so far available.
If these other uses of an open fire are neglected in the designs of "improved" stoves, designers should not be surprised by their rejection. The stove users complaints are often perceived as quirky or ignorant, but in reality the ignorance is more likely to be with the designers. For example, in Nepal stove workers explain that some rural villagers reject the new stoves because they do not provide enough smoke or room heat. Space heating (regarded by cookstove designs as waste heat) is usually reduced with a fuel- efficient stove but is obviously essential at high altitudes, particularly where people cannot afford warm clothes and blankets as mentioned below in Mutagaywa's article about Kenya.
Problems of rural dissemination are often blamed on the irrational attitudes of the local people. What may appear as irrational is usually perfectly logical within the cultural and environmental context of the community. Attempts by users in Guatemala to "adapt'' the new stoves to suit their needs included removing the firebox door to provide space heating. The message is clear - to avoid dissatisfaction with the new technology planners must know these "other uses" and their order of importance according to the users. Stove workers must learn to act on the users' priorities rather than try to impose their own. Better still, the stove users should be directly involved in decision making from the earliest planning stage of a programme.