Most of us have a luxury item in our home that millions couldn’t imagine having access to – it’s not a flat screen television, or a smart phone, but simply, a stove that turns on with the flip of a switch. One group working to solve the health and social issues presented to many around the world by cookstoves is Project Gaia, a U.S. based non-profit that has been working for 20 years to build local markets for ethanol-fueled clean cook stoves.

Imagine walking miles to collect fuel such as wood or charcoal, in sometimes dangerous conditions, and then having to cook your food over an open flame – causing smoke and particulate matter that would affect you and your families’ health. Just one example -- in Kebribeyah Camp, Ethiopia, many women walked five miles through dangerous conditions to collect fuel. Having ethanol burning cookstoves has allowed many of these women to go to school or start businesses with their extra time.     

Access to clean cook stoves has been identified as an important area of international development. According to the World Health Organization, millions of people die from lung and heart ailments caused by burning solid fuels. Charcoal, which is a prevalent solid fuel in poor countries, burns inefficiently and shortens lifespans by about 6.6 years, according to the United Nations. Burning solid fuels is also associated with risks of women being beaten or even raped during the fuel collection process, which imposes considerable threats to communities.

In 2010, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched “Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves,” a public-private partnership project operated by the U.N. Foundation, to “save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and protect the environment.” Despite significant investment, successes from the program have been elusive. Most of these cleaner burning stoves still use wood, charcoal or agricultural waste, thus presenting many of the same health and collection issues as before. The program has also been challenged by unstable performance of cook stoves in the field, high production costs, and people’s habits of using traditional cooking methods.  

Project Gaia has found that ethanol, mixed with a small amount of bitrex (a potent chemical that makes things taste too bitter to ingest), is the safest, most effective clean cook stove fuel. It also avoids using local forest as wood sources – deforestation is a problem in many areas in which Project Gaia operates. 

Project Gaia has made good progress: in Haiti, about 300 ethanol cook stoves were sold in last December alone; in Ethiopia, Gaia has delivered 6,893 stoves to refugee camps near the Somali border, benefiting a total of 40,055 people. Using ethanol-burning stoves brings these communities health, environmental and social benefits. While they are currently using imported ethanol, Project Gaia is working to localize the supply chain for fuels for the long-term.

Project Gaia shared several lessons of successfully promoting clean stoves in these countries with EESI. Finding good local partners is the first essential step. According to Alex Milano, a project manager at Gaia, their local partners in Haiti, Ethiopia and Nigeria provide well-established networks and teach them a lot about local context. “It is important to find people who are really interested in the project and able to help. For instance, one of our local partners is a doctor, who really values the health benefits of the stoves.”

Second, the demand for ethanol-burning stoves in those countries is growing. Local people can see the benefits of using the new stoves, including time saved from quick cooking times, less air pollution at home and lower economic and social costs of fuels.

Currently, the main issue Gaia faces is to bring down the cost of the stoves, as the price of the stoves is more than $25. Gaia and its partners are exploring a financial model for a price as low as $15. One potential strategy is to target the middle-income class first, to grow the market for the stoves. The purchase price of the stove could then be reduced in the longer term as demand grows, eventually benefiting poorer communities. Another strategy is to localize the production of stoves, which can reduce the costs caused by high tariff rates in these countries when importing clean stoves.   

Project Gaia is also trying to localize the supply of ethanol. In Africa and Latin America, molasses is a by-product of sugarcane production, and can be easily converted into ethanol. This can address the environmental pollution caused by pouring waste molasses into rivers, and create local jobs from the production of ethanol in small-scale ethanol microdistilleries. Depending on the region, other local ethanol feedstocks may include wastes from sugar beets, sorgum, cassava and potatoes. By having localized fuel production, Project Gaia can ensure a sustainable local fuel market for the stoves. 

In 2016, Project Gaia will focus on scaling up the project in Haiti, finding more partners to sustain the supply chain of ethanol, and seeking sustainable funding for the project in Ethiopia refugee camps.


Special thanks to Alex Milano, Project Manager at Project Gaia, for contributing to this story.


Author: Taotao Luo


For more information see:

Stoves that Save, Update on Haiti and Beyond, Ethanol Producer Magazine

Cookstoves Prevent Gender-Based Violence, Project Gaia

Alcohol Fuels, Project Gaia

These cheap, clean stoves were supposed to save millions of lives. What happened?, Washington Post

Interview with Alex Milano, project manager at Project Gaia, Feb. 2016