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Improved Tunisian domestic bread ovens: Flying saucer lids save 50 per cent fuelwood

by Hanns Polak, (GTZ/Agence pour la Maitrise de l'Energie), BP 230, 7121, Barnoussa, El Kef, Tunisia

With its two and a half million inhabitants Tunis is today one of the big cities of the Mediterranean. It has been quickly growing over last decade, but despite that, Tunisia is a rather small country of barely nine million people.

Tunisians have maintained a taste for rural life. 'Bread' in Tunisia means mostly the French 'baguette' produced in large quantities in central bakeries in each town. It is cheap - less than 20 US cents for a pound - as its price is fixed by Government. For most people the Arabic word 'chobbs' is reserved for the 'real' bread which is still made in at least 500,000 tabouna ovens all over the country. It is flat and round; that cake shaped little something owes its aroma and taste and its golden brown crust to whole wheat flour and the fine scent of pine firewood. Baking requires five to six kilos of wood for each firing. Even though LPG has replaced the three stone fire for cooking, a tabouna still remains the heart piece of a Tunisian household, representing traditional values and continuity.

A women's technology

Baking bread in Tunisia is a woman's affair. In each village there is usually one lady who specialises in making the barrel shaped ceramic body of a tabouna oven. The procedure needs several days. After soaking the clay for two days the shaping is done by hand, without a potter's wheel. The barrel needs to dry for three to four days before it can be baked in the fire. The baking is done by covering the inside and outside of the oven core with a heap of dry twigs. These are burned reaching temperatures of between 500°C and 800°C which bake the clay.

After the barrel has been brought to the place outside the house where the tabouna oven will be finally installed, the housewife takes over. She insulates the outer surface with a mixture of straw and loamy soil, leaving two, three or four air holes at the bottom of the stove. In a few tabounas, which are constructed completely underground, there are no air holes at all. There is never a grate at the bottom of the tabouna; the ash is swept out through the holes or is extracted using a flat shovel. The mouth on top of the tabouna remains open to put the fuelwood and later on the bread into the oven. In the traditional way it is not covered while heating the oven.

If firewood is available, the housewife will start baking at once; usually, she will have to go and look for fuel. Groups of three or more ladies go together to collect firewood and shrubs. If the area is sparsely forested, they will leave in the early morning and return in the late afternoon, each carrying a load of about forty kilograms.

Although arduous, collecting fuel does allow women a chance to get away from the constant supervision of the menfolk in the family; this is the only time when womenfolk do get away from the family home. Fuelwood is an increasingly scarce commodity: there remains hardly anything burnable to gather, especially in the vicinity of villages and towns.

Many women use agricultural residues or they collect shrubs, such as rosemary, which are easily uprooted and may still be found after the forest wood has all been taken. However, this leads to erosion as the winter rains wash away the soil which had been held together by the shrubs and the next year the problem is even more severe

Tabouna lid

Even in already deforested areas 89 per cent of the households meet their energy requirements with approximately four tonnes of biomass per year. About 44 per cent of it is needed for making bread in the tabounas. At least one half of the tabouna-using households have to buy fuelwood in addition to what they collect.

Equipping the tabouna oven with a lid was the most promising solution to reduce the consumption of firewood. The lid is made out of sheet steel and is fixed by a hinge on to the tabouna. When the tabouna is in use, the lid is closed, thus retaining a large proportion of the energy that is normally lost with the traditional tabouna.


The project team sells more than 4000 lids per year and has developed a social marketing strategy to commercialise the lid. One of the field workers relates;

'In the beginning it was very difficult to convince the women... they were arguing that the taste of the bread would change when using a lid over the tabouna. And it was even more difficult to convince the men to pay the price of 9 dinars [about 9US$] for something which would in their view only serve their wives”

Over the two years work the team has developed a social marketing strategy to commercialise the lid.

The first thing we discovered was that the lid needed to be more attractive. The people wanted not only something that would save their time and money, they wanted something nice.

By using standardised moulds, imported sheet steel and a simple press, operated by a lorry jack, local blacksmiths can produce attractive lids that resemble mini flying saucers. The tabouna was converted into a real modem baking oven.

Marketing the lid

The lid was named 'Salha' a word that means in Arabic, 'useful' or 'good for'; a famous popular song carries the same title.

Demonstrating the usefulness to a target group of 150000 households was a more difficult job. As the field worker explained,

'...soon we realised that we were simply too small a group to go into each and every douar... without the help of other organisations and many other vulgaristrices [field workers] we felt we would need a hundred years to popularise the ".salha".'

Local agricultural advisers, NGOs, blacksmiths and sellers of household appliances were drawn into the scheme. They all needed to be motivated, trained and equipped with demonstration tools. Once the communication between customers, producers and regional agents was installed, radio and TV spots were produced and broadcast. Every possible event like environmental or agricultural fairs and seminars and local markets were used to advertise the lids.

Development from project to enterprise

'Before we discovered the mechanisms of the market the relationship between us and our target group was clearly defined: we were a rich project and they were the beneficiaries.'

This role led to a perception that the lids would be supplied free of charge. In order to supply lids to an increasing market it became essential to convert the project from a charitable project to a small enterprise.

'We do not say any more beneficiaries we talk about customers.'

Beneficiaries became customers; subsidies were ruled out; the lids are now sold at the commercial price. The enterprise makes a small profit as sheet steel and hinge material are free of tax and duty and the prices are fixed for a period of time. Although the project still depends on government finance, it works as an enterprise, depending on profits.

'We work like an enterprise our financial means are scarce so we have learned to employ existing partners.'

Politicians and administrators are used to promote the benefits as they are shown to be caring for the environment and their people. Controlling quality and price is necessary to avoid producers and customers being dissatisfied. External support will still be needed for a long time before all functions are taken over by private entrepreneurs.