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Why stoves are resisted

Bina Agarwal

BINA AGARWAL is an economist and Reader at the Institute of Economic Growth, University, Enclave. New Delhi, India.

Recent interest in the promotion of wood stoves stems from the growing recognition by many Third World countries of an energy crisis. This crisis relates not to the widely publicized scarcity of fossil fuels, but to the rapid and widespread depletion of forest in these countries.

Currently, wood is the single most important source of energy in the Third World. Fuelwood and charcoal are estimated to provide two-thirds of all energy in Africa, a third in Asia and a fifth in Latin America (Arnold and Jongma, 1977). In many countries such as Nepal, the United Republic of Tanzania, Uganda, the Upper Volta and Chad, the figure is estimated to be 90 percent of the total energy used. For the majority of other countries in Asia and Africa, it is estimated at being well over 50 percent (Know-land and Ulinski, 1979).

The bulk of energy from wood is used for cooking and heating. Although no macro-estimates exist of the percentage of wood consumed directly as fuelwood and the percentage consumed as charcoal, micro-studies indicate that charcoal is mainly an urban fuel. Since 75 percent of the population in most Asian and African countries is rural, fuelwood constitutes the main if not the sole source of energy.

In most regions, fuelwood has been and still largely continues to be free (Arnold and Jongma, 1977); people depend on what they can gather themselves. Rural households with land can obtain fuelwood from trees on their own plots, supplemented by crop residues. The landless, however, have to depend on wood from common land or gather it from other people's land in return for their labour. Fuelwood is collected mainly by women and children. In the African Sahel, women walk up to 10 km or three hours per day to gather fuelwood. In the Niger, village women will spend four hours every day gathering wood and they may be out from midday to nightfall. Although forests are a renewable resource, deforestation has led to an increasing scarcity of fuelwood in many areas, and the problem is likely to worsen. The shortages are particularly severe for the poor and landless. They are compelled in some parts of the world to cook only one meal a day. Within the household, it is the women who are most affected, because this scarcity disproportionately increases their work. Digerness (1977) points out that 10 years ago in Bara, the Sudan, fuelwood was available after a 15- to 20-minute walk from the village, whereas now women have to walk for at least 1-2 hours. Eckholm (1975) makes a similar observation about Nepal.

It is in this context that improved wood stoves are seen as one way of alleviating fuelwood shortages since they save on the amount of wood needed for cooking. Clearly the success of improved wood stoves depends on how much wood is saved in practice, and not merely in laboratory tests, and on whether the stoves are acceptable to the mass of rural users, especially to the women of poor households.

The promotion and diffusion of improved wood stoves is, however, not a simple process. The factors which affect diffusion can be divided into five categories: 1) technical aspects - wood-stove design and development; 2) economic aspects; 3) infrastructure aspects (extension and credit); 4) cultural aspects, especially attitudes to change; 5) social structure.

Technical aspects

Two case-studies, one in Guatemala (Sheller, 1981), the other in Ghana, have observed in detail the diffusion of improved wood stoves. They both clearly indicate the importance of field adaptation involving the local users, materials, and craftsmen. Research on the diffusion of the Lorena stove in the severely deforested highlands of Guatemala is based on 36 in depth interviews with stove owners, plus intensive observation of the cooking practices of six families. The stove was developed in 1976 at the Estación Experimental Choqui-ICADA, a small technology centre near Quezaltenango. The Lorena stove was meant to replace the open fire. Formed from a monolithic block of locally available sand and clay, it was designed to conserve firewood and decrease smoke build-up in the kitchen.

The main advantages of the Lorena stove compared to the open fire were: the saving of wood; smokelessness; cleaner, safer and more comfortable working conditions (cooking could be done standing up); less time spent on cooking.

REFUGEES AT A CAMP IN INDIA - a well-designed wood stove would improve nutrition

The main disadvantages were that it provided no space heating; the cooking surface was inflexible; the number of holes for pots was fixed which limited the number of pots in use at one time. Moreover, the absence of smoke was not seen as an advantage in those households with straw roofs which were kept dry by smoke, or where smoke served to eliminate parasites from the ears of corn hung from the rafters. A detailed examination of what people liked and did not like about the Lorena stove can be found in "The sociology of a stove" by Dale V. Shaller in Unasylva, Vol. 33, No. 134. A major conclusion of this study was that the women who used the Lorena stove should have been directly involved in ifs design.

The second case-study describes the attempt to promote an improved wood stove in Ghana (Hoskins, 1979). The model (recommended by the Canadian Hunger Foundation and the Brace Research Institute, and introduced by the Department of Social Welfare and Community Development in the late 1960s) was made from locally available scrap-metal and hand-baked clay tile, brick and masonry. By the mid-1970s, it was clear that the women were not using many of the stoves and that the experiment had been a failure.

On the basis of the women's complaints, Hoskins identifies a number of reasons for the failure: the stove needed larger pieces of wood than were available locally; the stove surface was too high for stirring large pots; the sizes of the pot holes were not suitable for many of the pots already in use; if the unused holes were not tightly covered or the pot fitted only loosely, smoke escaped, the pots were dirtied, and more rather than less wood was used. The stove design was not suited to the users' needs because there had been little or no interaction between the designer and the women prior to designing the stove. This project represents yet another example where adaptation through user-interaction and user-involvement was undoubtedly necessary. The women in Ghana, unlike those in Guatemala, did not attempt to adapt the. They stopped using them.

Hoskins also provides some useful insights into the sorts of factors which have prevented the successful diffusion of wood stoves in the many attempts to introduce them in Africa

- failure to identify the key figures in the stove diffusion process: the women who cook on the stoves; the local artisans who can design, repair, and alter the stoves and cooking utensils; and the local extension agents;

- imposition of laboratory-tried models with Western standards which are unsuitable for the local setting and cultural norms;

- failure to relate the physical elements of stove design to social realities. Stove use often places additional burdens on women. In Ghana, the new stove meant looking for larger pieces of wood, which required going farther afield - a sacrifice which the women were unwilling to make.

Both the Guatemala and the Ghana case-studies clearly indicate that close interaction between designers, users, local artisans and extension agents is a crucial element in the successful diffusion of wood stoves.


The private financial benefits of investing in an improved wood stove are likely to be small or nil where wood is still not for sale. The cost of the stoves depends on the materials used to build it. When materials available locally, such as mud or clay, are used, the expense may be negligible. If the material is difficult to procure and needs to be bought, some financial expenditure obviously has to be incurred. An indirect cost is also incurred if the stove necessitates the purchase of new cooking utensils. The non-financial benefits of investing in an improved stove include the saving of women's labour time; the absence of smoke (although this may not always be seen as a benefit); the greater ease of cooking where the stove is adapted to the most comfortable cooking posture; the saving of cattle dung (currently burnt as fuel) which has an alternative use as manure; and maintained or improved nutritional levels.

Thus, most of the potential benefits from wood stoves are non-monetary and often intangible, while the costs are in fact monetary. The benefits may not always be perceived by the person making the decision to buy, e.g. when men make the decisions and the benefits accrue mainly to the women. Furthermore, the benefits do not necessarily accrue to all the stove users, for the non-financial benefits are dependent on the economic level of the household. For example, the saving of cattle dung for manure is only important to a land-cultivating household and not to a landless one. On the other hand, the effects on nutritional levels are essentially felt by those households on the margin of subsistence. They cannot afford to buy alternative fuels and therefore have to economize on wood.

All these aspects introduce complexities in wood-stove diffusion. These stoves cannot be placed on the market and promoted through advertisements. Like contraceptives or health-related programmes, their acceptability is determined by many non-financial factors.


It has been noted how direct user, involvement can be a significant help in getting people to use stoves. The infrastructural aspects of the problem focus on the biases in extension and credit services. Clearly, many of the issues discussed in this context apply to all rural innovations. In Asia and Africa, the extension agents tend to favour the economically and socially privileged households: village-level agricultural extension workers typically contact the richer land-owning farmers (Dasgupta. 1977; Griffin, 1971; Hapgood, 1965 and Lele, 1975). Extension services also tend to favour men to women. In both Asia and Africa, extension agents are usually male and thus generally contact men even when the information is directly relevant to women.

Biases in extension and credit services relating to improved wood stoves affect diffusion adversely. For instance, when information is supplied only to men, women are not in a favourable position to make or influence decisions on stove purchase. Furthermore, appropriate adaptations are not possible if women arc not consulted. The fact that women tend to be isolated from the flow of technical information has adverse implications for the development of indigenous technical knowledge and skills. Women should definitely be recruited as extension agents. They would not have the same problems as men in gaining access to women users.

PREPARING FOOD ON A WOOD STOVE - saves fuel, fatigue and cooking time

The success improved wood stoves depends on how much wood they save and whether they are acceptable to rural users, especially to the women of poor households.

In addition to the above biases, a related factor is the way in which extension agents operate. The village extension agent usually has to handle a wide range of issues from agricultural inputs to family planning without adequate previous training (IADP. 1966; Lele, 1975). Furthermore, extension staff is transferred very frequently, so that any local experience acquired or rapport established with the villagers cannot be used to full advantage.

This problem is two-fold. Firstly, the efficiency of the bureaucracies in the various Third World countries affects extension service and thus determines the quality of information imparted through their extension systems. Secondly, the personal prejudices of the extension agents often determine to whom the information is imparted.

A further problem is that of credit availability, since either the stove itself, or the materials needed for building it, have to be purchased. In absolute terms the expense is small but because many of the potential stove users arc very poor, any monetary transaction depends crucially on subsidized credit. However, just as there is a bias in access to information against the underprivileged groups in the community, so there is a bias in access to credit. In both Asia and Africa, only the economically and politically powerful groups in the rural community have easy access to village credit institutions (Dasgupta, 1977; Apthorpe, 1970). Thus, the poorer households usually cannot afford improved wood stoves.

Cultural factors: attitudes to change

The promoters of stoves frequently complain about the irrational "conservatives" attitudes of rural people. More often than not, the problem is really that these people are poor and in low social positions. Furthermore, what may appear to be irrational to an outsider may in fact be perfectly logical within the cultural context of the people. An understanding of this is crucial.

An interesting illustration is provided by a study of firewood use in Nepal (Bajracharya, 1981). Bajracharya notes how one set of his sample households uses wood stoves and hence less wood than the rest who use the open fire. These different technologies coexist even though the households arc located close to one another and the existence of efficient wood stoves is common knowledge.

One or both of the following explanations explanations could be valid. The first relates to religious beliefs and rituals. The households using the open fire believe that the pitridevta or family spirit resides in it. Their reluctance to switch to the stove is attributed to superstition. They belong to the indigenous caste groups in the area - the Rais, Gurungs, etc. The stove-using households migrated from outside, albeit some generations ago. They belong to the Brahmin and Chhetri castes and have a somewhat different set of religious customs. A second explanation relates to the fact that drinking is common among the Rai/Gurung communities who brew their own liquor. This is done in large pots which need the wider open fire. Among the Brahmin/Chhetri castes, liquor is not generally consumed so this is not a consideration.

In so far as the cause of non-adoption lies in drinking habits, stoves could readily be designed to take this into account. Although adaptation which takes account of religious beliefs is difficult, beliefs have themselves been known to be adaptable (see Hoskins, 1979, on the three-stone stove in African communities).

The potential wood-stove user's attitudes are also governed by past experience with past promoters of innovations. Where the same set of extension agents promote wood stoves as well as a range of other rural technologies (from all types of mechanical equipment to contraceptives), their credibility about wood stoves depends significantly on their degree of success with the other innovations. In some cases, it is easier to get a completely novel idea accepted than a modified old one. For example. Joseph (1980) notes that there was ready acceptance of cooking pots with lids among the Oceanic people who were unused to cooking pots, while in other communities where lidless pots were common, the tendency was to remove the lids of the new pots as well.

"Can a dialogue -be started between the scientists, the village extension agents, an the underprivileged users of innovations, within the hierarchical social structures of most present-day Third World countries?"

Those promoting the wood stove must have a deep understanding of life in the potential adopter's community. This requires an insight into the complex set of factors that govern behaviour and provide an overt or covert logic for doing a certain thing in a certain way.

The promoter's understanding cannot be gained in the laboratory - it necessitates a close interaction with the potential user. Hence, once more, the issue of innovation adaptation in the field and of user-involvement is significant.

Social structures

How is the unequal nature of power balances between the sexes and different classes/castes likely to affect wood-stove diffusion?

As already mentioned, the status of women within the household is a significant factor in wood-stove adoption, especially where adoption requires cash expenditure. Although women are the potential users and, therefore, in the best position to assess the advantages and disadvantages of the wood stove, men usually handle the household cash and make decisions on how it is spent. Where women manage to get independent access to money, they spend it on family needs, whereas men tend to spend it on their own needs, such as drink, clothes, etc. (Arens and Van Beurden, 1977; Bukh, 1979; Hanger and Moris. 1973). Hence, where men make the decisions, the purchase of an improved stove almost certainly does not get priority, especially since its main advantage is greater leisure or convenience in cooking for women.

Likewise, the status of women within the community is an influencing factor. Rural women usually have no direct access to institutional credit or to an independently disposable cash income to purchase new innovations/technologies; and they seldom have access to information on new innovations. There is a strong ideological bias in extension services which is likely to work against the direct involvement of, or consultation with, village women in the experimental design of wood stoves. The Guatemala and Ghana case-studies indicated that female involvement would have been a significant feature in effective diffusion of the improved wood stove. Unfortunately, up to now, rural women have not been given the education, the training or the opportunity to undertake decision-making roles or responsibilities in the public sphere.

Social hierarchies often make it impossible to set up Linkages between indigenous technical knowledge and skills and the more formalized research and development networks, between the user and the scientists and technicians.

The question is whether the urban-based scientists doing "intellectual" work are prepared to listen to the peasants whose knowledge comes more often from field experience than from formal education. Are they prepared to listen to the village extension staff -the local VLWS, or block-development officers? Are the VLWS, who enjoy a certain status in the village as part of a well-entrenched hierarchy, prepared to converse with the poor tenant farmers who cannot provide reciprocal favours? Can a dialogue be started between the scientists, the village extension agents, and the underprivileged users of innovations, within the hierarchical social structures of most present-day Third World countries?

The problem is only partly one of economic inequalities and social differences. The divide between the scientist and the user is also usually a divide between mental and physical labour, between the town and the countryside, between the sexes and often, between the white "expert" and the black-brown-yellow "native". To overcome this divide, attitudes need to change. To increase the participation of women in decision-making both within the household and in the community will require more than a new consciousness toward finances.

* * *

Innovations which require adaptation to user-needs, which entail a financial cost but provide no financial benefits, and which are aimed at a mass of economically and socially disadvantaged people, are unlikely to be accepted through a market-oriented approach to promotion.

Improved wood-burning stoves are a prime example. They are of specific and immediate interest because of the rural energy crisis facing large parts of the Third World today. The familiarity of the stove designer with the cultural milieu of the community where the stoves are to be promoted, and the adaptation of the stoves to suit specific user-needs, are crucial factors in adoption. At the same time, the possibility of involving the local people in innovative design and adaptation depends crucially on the structure of economic and social relationships in each area. Class, caste and sex hierarchies could well become serious constraints to diffusion, thus making more extensive material and ideological changes essential.


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