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close this book Boiling Point No. 23 - December 1990
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Stove Programmes in Sri Lanka: Reflections on the First Decade

by Mick Howes, Institute of Development Studies University of Sussex, 1990

(Mick Howes has recently completed a research project which explores the implications of the Sri Lanka Government's biomass energy policy for rural people. His study includes a review of the stoves work in which ITDG has been involved. The article summarises the major conclusions arising from this part of this work and concludes with some remarks about the more recent urban progress. The research was funded by the ODA, but the opinions expressed are those of the author alone).

The Development of the Sarvodaya Stove

The story begins in 1979 when ITDG embarked upon a collaborative venture with Sarvodaya, one of Sri Lanka's leading NGOs. The intention was to produce a new stove which would conserve fuel, save women's time, and reduce the risk to health posed by exposure to smoke. Building on Sarvodaya's extensive village contacts in the Kandy district, early activities proceeded in what David Korten has described as the 'learning process' mode, with ideas being explored with intended users, and objectives being modified in the light of their reactions.

Working in this way, it quickly became apparent that the first generation of designs to be tested were not what village women wanted. They were expensive, differed radically from the stoves with which they were familiar, and required major changes in the way in which cooking was carried out.

This initial failure prompted researchers to look more closely at existing practices, and user design priorities. This, via a series of progressively more successful attempts, then led on to the identification of a final design which achieved all the initial objectives, whilst retaining the essential characteristics of the traditional stove. Further modification then transformed this into a final product which could be made in parts by local potters, and then assembled through a simple process in adopters" homes. Dissemination on a pilot scale followed, and the stove proved popular in the areas of Kandy where it was introduced.

Having advanced thus far, Sarvodaya was now confronted with the problems of how to replicate its success in Kandy in other areas where its organisation was not so strong.

The National Fuelwood Conversation Programme

While Sarvodaya had been developing its new stove, the idea that large numbers of rural people in the third world were confronting a 'woodfuel crisis was gaining currency in international development circles. There was also growing concern that, as shortages began to materialise, fuelwood extraction would become a major cause of deforestation, and thus of environmental problems which would threaten the interests of society as a whole. In combination with the fear that a shortage of biomass fuels would also damage the interests of all Sri Lankans by encouraging substitutions, and exacerbating an already large fossil fuel balance of payments deficit, this had already led the Government to embark upon its own review of the possibilities for fuel conservation.

Thus it was that Sarvodaya's needs came to dovetail neatly with those of the Government. The result was the National Fuelwood Conservation Programme, which used the Sarvodaya design, but with the responsibility for dissemination now being taken on by the Energy Unit in the Ministry of Power and Energy.

Starting in 1984, this was conceived as a classic 'blueprint' style intervention, with fixed annual targets, and no provision for objectives to be revised in the light of experience. To try to make sure that targets were achieved, financial incentives were offered to the local level of officials who were given the task of promoting the stove, and heavy subsidies were made available to consumers.

The Ministry, however, lacked the resources to put this into effect by itself and was obliged to rely heavily upon the Dutch, and a number of other donors, who provided most of the necessary funding through the district Integrated Rural Development Project (IRDPs) which they were already supporting.

Well over 100,000 stoves have now been installed under the Programme. This falls well short of the ambitious targets which were initially laid down, but it is clear, on the basis of these figures alone, that it has still been more successful than the great majority of stove programmes elsewhere. This success is partly a function of the special incentives offered, but also owes much to the basic viability of the stove design, and to the nature of the research process by which this, in turn, was created.

This positive impression has, however, to be modified, to some extent, when one looks more closely at the nature of the benefits which the programme has actually conferred. Documents prepared at the outset make it clear that the overriding objectives were social, rather than individual, in nature; and it was on this basis that a relatively high level of subsidisation was advocated. Our research, however, reveals that the desired social benefits have not been achieved.

In the first place, it can be demonstrated that less than 1% of the fuel currently used is being extracted in unsustainable ways from forest land. However large the amount of fuel conserved, the possibility of a significant impact upon the rate of deforestation can, therefore, be ruled out. It is also apparent that where fuel substitution takes place it is generally 'downwards' into inferior forms of biomass, and not 'upwards' into fossil fuels; from which it follows that there can be no positive impact upon the balance of payments either. The major benefits arising accrue rather to individual adopters, and not to society as a whole.

The main advantage of the stove reported by users, is that it saves time - on average a little less than an hour a day. They also report that average fuel savings of at least 20% have been achieved, but these are of relatively little significance in themselves, since the stoves have generally been promoted in areas where biomass is still in relatively plentiful supply.

Biomass savings translate into financial gains of approximately 1 rupee per day for the small minority of households who purchase all of their fuel requirements, but this sum is only of significance for low income households, and they account for only a small proportion of this category of user. Time saved in cooking, and in collection by those who do not purchase, might, in principle, be converted into additional income, but usually accrues in small fragments, which are difficult to utilise in this way.

(There are great potential benefits, in the longer term, in the form of a reduced incidence of eye and respiratory diseases; but it appears unlikely that users will be aware of this relationship, and it will probably therefore have no influence upon their adoption decisions.)

The overall conclusion on the second phase of stove activity is therefore clear. Although large numbers of people have been persuaded to adopt the stove, and most appear happy to have done so, the assumptions upon which the programme was initially based are incorrect. The intended social benefits, in the form of environmental protection and reduced commercial energy import bills, have failed to materialise. The primary benefit is time saved and this accrues to individual households, most of whom are relatively well-off. The case for subsidisation is therefore undermined, and the overall validity of the approach laid open to question.

The Urban Programme

The third, and most recent, phase of activity began in 1987, when ITDG entered into a new venture with the Ministry. This involved adapting the basic design and then scaling up production systems so as to meet the requirements of the large urban markets, which had not been covered under the IRDPs.

Although not directly investigated in our own research, this initiative seems to avoid the major difficulties associated with the earlier programme, and there are at least two major reasons for supposing that it will be a much more clear cut success.

The first of these derives from the fact that it is based in Colombo and Gampaha which are, by far, the most densely populated parts of the Island. These districts are already in heavy overall fuel deficit, and from this it follows that a high proportion of consumers in general, and of poor consumers in particular, must purchase their fuel. Fuel savings here thus translate directly into money in people's pockets; providing strong incentives for new stoves to be bought, even where no subsidies are offered.

Secondly, while urban consumers may differ to some extent in their requirements, it seems probable that the range of situations encountered will be narrower than in rural areas, where fuel sources, and the greater diversity of secondary functions which stoves are required to perform, will lead to more pronounced variations in design preference. Everything else being equal, a relatively centralised 'blueprint' approach, built around a single design of stove, is therefore likely to enjoy greater success in an urban environment than it would elsewhere.


The number of stoves adopted in major urban areas seems likely to grow, and to account for an increasing proportion of all new stoves installed nationally. But if present trends persist, attempts to promote stoves elsewhere will continue to absorb the greater part of the overall resources available.

Given the far less pressing need for improved stoves in the areas where fuel is still comparatively easy to come by, this seems unfortunate. Circumstances here do not demand rapid, large scale, 'blueprint' actions. Might it then not be better to opt for a series of low cost, 'process' type, village based experiments in different ecological zones, with the object of producing a range of designs appropriate to specific local conditions and needs? As fuel shortages spread outwards from the present centres, as eventually they almost certainly will, a much firmer basis could thereby be established for rural people to respond in ways appropriate to their individual circumstances.

Fig 2 - From the Anagi Stove Manual