Cooking up a SAFE solution: fuel-efficient stoves for displaced communities in South Sudan

“These days collecting firewood for cooking is not easy,” said Jersy Yata, in Lainya County, near Juba in the Republic of South Sudan. “Sometimes we will stay for days without food because there is no firewood to cook with.”

© FAO / Jose Cendon


“Everybody is looking for firewood and every day we have to go further and further from our home to get enough to cook with,” she added. “I have no time for anything else, and I cannot afford to buy it in the market – it’s too expensive.”

More than two billion poor people across the developing world depend on wood energy for cooking and/or heating. In South Sudan, which is no exception, fuelwood is the main source of energy for the vast majority of the population. But since the outbreak of violent conflict in 2013, some 2.5 million people have been displaced from their homes, and as a result, availability and access to this natural resource has become a complex and contentious issue, for women in particular and for families, displaced communities and the environment at large.

Multi-sectoral challenges

Without the means to cook food, people face dire consequences relating to food security and nutrition. In Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps in particular, when women have limited access to cooking fuel, they are often forced to cope by undercooking food or skipping meals entirely; they may also resort to bartering or selling food to obtain fuel. In urban areas affected by emergencies, lack of access to fuel has even led some women to resort to the trading of sexual favours in exchange for fuelwood or charcoal.

Indeed, when it comes to accessing and using fuel for cooking, displaced households face multiple challenges across a range of sectors, including food security and nutrition, health and safety, gender, livelihoods and environmental sustainability.

For example, the large-scale displacement of people can have a significant impact on forest resources around camps, through increased demand and extensive harvesting of woodfuels. A recent study by the Moving Energy Initiative estimates that 64 700 acres of forest are burned each year to meet the energy needs of displaced families.

Environmental degradation around camps can in turn have implications for the livelihoods and well-being of people within the camps themselves. Where forests have been depleted, the increasing scarcity of wood for cooking fuel may exacerbate tensions and conflict between communities who compete for access to the same natural resources.

Even in the absence of environmental or forest degradation, people often have to walk long distances to find and collect firewood. The burden of doing so usually falls on women and children, exposing them to harassment, assault, rape and other forms of violence. And again, as already-scarce forest resources are depleted further, the situation may worsen, causing greater tensions among communities.

Louisa Kamisa, a displaced mother who arrived in Lainya County in September 2015, said the community was not happy with their arrival and that people often direct them to far off places to collect firewood.

“Walking all that way takes a lot of time,” she said. “And also it is not safe since men are around and attack us.”

At worst, the collection of fuelwood and production of charcoal are risky and unsustainable activities. At best, they prevent women and children from engaging in more productive activities such as income generation, education and schooling, and more. This is especially important in the case of female-headed households.

The use of inefficient cooking methods, such as the traditional open or three-stone fires, also forces households to spend much more of their savings and time on wood than they would with more efficient cooking technologies. Moreover, these methods produce large amounts of toxic smoke, thereby exposing women and children to lethal respiratory illnesses: the smoke generated from indoor burning of solid fuel causes nearly 2 million premature deaths every year. Open fires may also cause burns and increase the risk of uncontrolled fires.

A SAFE approach

To address these challenges, FAO has been working with the World Food Programme (WFP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and others on the Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) initiative, a cross-sectoral programme to protect communities in crisis, along with the environment, through the use of clean, efficient technologies and alternative fuels.

The SAFE approach centres on issues of access, production and use of fuel in crisis settings, and typically involves the use of fuel-efficient stoves, fuel-saving cooking practices, alternative fuels, and/or other measures to reduce the need for fuelwood.

In 2013, for example, in a SAFE project funded by the Government of Japan, FAO worked with communities in Yei County, South Sudan to address their energy and woodfuel needs. Implemented in collaboration with a local partner, the Kagelu Forestry Training Centre (KFTC), the project not only provided men and women with efficient equipment to feed themselves and their families, it also contributed to a reduction in fuelwood consumption, a reduction of women’s work burden and decreased exposure to potential risks such as assault and rape.

Learning by doing: a participatory process

People from the communities chose, from among themselves, a group of 20 women to receive training in the construction of fuel-efficient mudstoves, using locally-available materials such as clay and anthill soils, bricks, sticks, scrap metal and water.

The stoves were built using flexible designs developed with the participation of the women, as well as with input from the communities. As a result, two different models were developed: a portable ceramic charcoal stove and a stationary mud/brick stove. The fixed or stationary stoves, designed to function with both firewood and charcoal, were built directly into people’s homes, and often included a chimney to draw smoke out of the house, minimizing indoor air pollution and toxic smoke inhalation.

The women learned by first observing the production process and then building the stoves themselves. They were taught how to prepare the mud bricks for stove construction, making a durable foundation in the kitchen. They also learned stove maintenance and improved wood handling techniques. Thanks to the training-of-trainers approach, the women were then able to pass their new skills on to others in the community. Working together with help from FAO and KFTC, they constructed and delivered a total of 1500 stoves to vulnerable households in camps, settlements and host communities in Yei County.


The benefits of the new stoves were soon apparent. Women reported a reduction in the amount of fuelwood required for cooking, which in turn meant less time spent on collecting wood: households that had required an average of four or five trips a week now needed only one or two trips a week, meaning that women and children were now much less exposed to violence and sexual assault.

The women also reported a reduction not only in cooking time, but in the time and effort required to clean the stoves after cooking, both of which meant they now had more time for other activities. Moreover, because the new stoves were safer and more stable than the three-stone fires, the women could also carry out farm and other household work while leaving food to simmer. And of course, the stoves had a positive impact on family nutrition and health, since food was now less likely to be undercooked in order to save fuelwood. Indeed, many noted that the food smelled and tasted better with the new stoves.

A local radio programme, Radio Miraya’s Monday Moi, featured comments from some of the women about their new fuel-efficient stoves. “What I have seen is that it takes less fuelwood,” explained one of the women.

“And it cooks faster since you put the source in one side and the food in the other. Also, children will not get burnt when using the stove.”

The project also addressed the fuel supply side through the establishment of woodlots and agroforestry. Men and women from the communities received training to set up tree nurseries and subsequently establish woodlots with multipurpose tree species for fuel, shade, fodder, and windbreaks, as well as for improved soil fertility. In the long term, the trees can help offset environmental degradation and minimize the negative impact of camps and improvised settlements throughout the area.


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