Saturday, September 22, 2012

Cookin' With Ladders

Not real ladders -- but it does offer a way up, at least a few steps.

     I've written about a stove project in Africa before, in Eritrea where some applied good sense has been getting the smoke out of the kitchen.  That's not the only place where a little technology and a modicum of economics is helping people: folks in Ghana at the lower end of the economic spectrum (and that would be quite a lot of people) have traditionally cooked with charcoal, over open-sided sheet-metal stoves.

     Problem is, those stoves aren't very efficient and worse yet, there are more people cooking than there are trees to support their fuel.

     So a company -- a for-profit company! -- called Toyola came up with an efficient little sheet-metal-and-ceramic charcoal stove.  The primary components are little more than scrap metal and well-sifted mud,* resulting in a nice-sized stove that sells for about seven bucks.  And if even that is too much (sip your four-dollar latte for a minute and ponder the implications), why, they'll advance credit and you haul your stove home with a tin-can bank, with the suggestion that you take the money you're saving on charcoal, put it in the can and save up towards payments on your stove.

     End result?  Toyola is making money.  People are able to buy better, more efficient stoves.  For the professional charcoal-burners....  It's kind of a setback for them, I admit, but on the other hand, they were starting to run out of trees; people are still using charcoal, just not as much.  (Burning charcoal is nasty work no matter where you live, requiring constant vigilance for days at a time, and the world's charcoal burners are traditionally and typically a wild and rugged bunch; also ragged, as the pay is lousy even if you're self-employed).

     You can read the article and find a lot of blather about carbon this and green that; all very nice, if you like that sort of thing, but for the Ghanan housewife (or, if I interpret the photo, fast-food vendor), it's about things more concrete and immediate: a better stove -- and more money to spend on something other than cooking fuel.  It's a step up.

     At one time, "kitchen improvements" for the poorer countries were one of many wildly inappropriate schemes that transplanted only mildly adapted First-World approaches to places where nobody did things that way. They'd hand people shiny gadgets that couldn't be built locally or even maintained locally.  The programs would sputter on awhile, supported by big slabs of cash, and then sputter out.  Nowadays, more and more, the people who come up with these notions are paying attention to the end-users; they're either locals themselves or willing to listen.  And I think it's making a stronger and more lasting difference.
* Admittedly, it's got to be the right kind of mud.


karrde said...

Shades of Ben Franklin...

He is credited with doing something similar for wood-stoves, creating a stove that used fuel more efficiently.

Of course, in Africa, the need to heat a house efficiently is rare. But heating food efficiently is always a good idea.

B said...

and next you'll have to have a gubmint program to help those who have been put out of work by the evil company that made the stoves.

Then the socialist will generate unrest and protest the company.

Isn't that how it is supposed to work?

Roberta X said...

Mr. B: Maybe not. Depends on how many charcoal-burners are idled -- and if they can learn to run a kiln.

Anonymous said...

I am reminded of the novel "The Ugly American".

I am also reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a girl in the Peace Corps. She was discussing the problems the natives had with parasites in their drinking water. After telling me that they couldn't boil the water (didn't want to cut down the trees, you know), I wondered aloud if somebody could figure out a way for them to make some sort of cheap filter. This was also a non-starter because (apparently) introducing a foreign-made gadget to solve their problems would rob them of their dignity or something.

Anonymous said...

I hope they look into South Korea for a foreign market.
They have thousands of CO deaths annually due to exactly the same problem.
Could make them bazillions!


Roberta X said...

AL: From the evidence, there's probably some outfit on it already; "better stoves" is riding high, in part because it's easy to get a start-up loan. --And not too darned hard to sell to the end user, if the thing really does work better. It's not apples-to-apples, but would you turn down a 20 to 30% reduction in your gas bill, at the price of 2 or 3 months of the savings?

DocJim: "Rob them of their dignity?" Wow. The real reason to prefer local solutions is A) so's they can make more when they run out and B) to not suck cash outta the local economy. If J. Random Local has to float a loan for a seven-dollar stove or a six-dollar water filter, that tells us he or she is probably not living in much of a cash economy: eating and wearing and living in what can be shot, trapped, gathered, grown, salvaged or swapped for. X dollars sent to the Ipsy-Wipsy Filter Institute in It Ching, China is unlikely to be coming back, certainly not without strings attached; X, or X/2 or even 2X dollars paid to Half-baked Joe's Hand Packed Sand & Solar Filters just up the road gets spent on groceries and the like, right there in Smalltown Thirdworldiastan. Plus if the damn thing breaks, you can walk up to Joe's and get him to fix it -- or show you how.

Ish said...

This is a for-profit company? Yeah right, pull the other one!

Next you are going to tell me that for-profit businesses have incentives and motivations for developing and delivering a product that the end-users might actually want or need!