12.10.139:33 AM ET

Cookstoves Are The Solution

Women in wartorn Sudan put themselves in daily peril to secure safe food and water. How a simple tool could revolutionize their lives.

Recent media attention has brought to light the struggle for women in the developing world to provide safe water for their families. This issue deserves the attention it receives because globally, women and girls spend 150 hours a day trekking for safe water, and 3.4 million people a year die from water, sanitation, and hygiene-related issues.

The issue of access to clean cooking solutions is very similar: both compromise the ability to meet basic household needs, both keep families mired in poverty, both cause widespread (and preventable) deaths, and both disproportionally affect women and children. This is particularly true for regions struggling to recover from crises.

In the Darfur region of Sudan, the site of Potential Energy’s flagship project, almost three million people were forced from their homes in the wake of the 2003 conflict. Many families now reside in crowded internally displaced persons (IDP) or refugee camps where they are provided with food and shelter, but not with cooking fuel or equipment. Women are left to solve the problem of how—and with what fuel—to cook the food that sustains their families.

When our project first began, these women “solved” the problem by walking five to seven hours a day, three to five days a week to find wood, often facing assault along the way. Today, there is no wood within a day’s walk and most women buy wood from local vendors, spending up to a third of their household income and often skipping up to three meals a week to afford it.

As women cookover traditional open fires, they expose themselves and their families to significant health dangers:breathing in cooking smoke leads to chronic and acute illnesses that cause four million premature deaths annually…more deaths than are caused by malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis combined. This smoke also makes its way into the atmosphere, contributing to a high amount of greenhouse gases.

It’s not hard to see that this situation is a major factor in what keeps people in the developing world—and women in particular—struggling just to stay alive, with little time, energy or money to pursue education or generate more income to buy food and medicine for their families. And following on that logic, it’s also not hard to see that a cookstove that saves significant time and money could have an enormously stabilizing effect on a woman’s life and the life of her family, for generations to come.

In other words: a cookstove changes everything.

Potential Energy distributes affordable, high-quality cookstovesto women in Darfur. We are not the only cookstove project out there, but we believe our stoves are the only ones of their kind that are truly customized to the foods, climate and cooking style of Darfur. And because they truly meet the needs of our customers, they get used. And because they get used, our customers report that their firewood costs are cut in half. Over the five-year lifespan of the stove, this represents almost $2000 in the hands of women living where the average annual income is $350.

We’ve learned from our work in Darfur that even women living in displacement camps deserve to be treated as customers and not passive recipients of charity. Building a stove around their needs is one way we do this. We also have recently migrated beyond a strictly humanitarian approach to a social enterprise model, selling the stove (using micro-loans and payment plans) in order to build in feedback loops with our customers and create ongoing revenue streams for local women’s groups.We’re now applying this approach in Ethiopia and have plans to expand throughout Africa.

It comes down to this: women in the developing world remain mired in poverty for a complex web of reasons, but modest changes in their daily lives—how they get clean water, how they cook their food—can have a profound effect on their life prospects.

To learn more about our work, please visit


Debra Stein is Potential Energy’s Associate Director and is currently serving as Interim Executive Director.