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The stove that won’t kill the world’s poor

An Indian mother and her child sit waiting for water to boil on an open flame in the shack they call home in one of Calcutta’s slums.

The Sunday Times
February 14, 2010

Tariq Tahir

NEARLY half the world’s population relies on crude open-fire stoves. They produce hundreds of millions of tonnes of climate-damaging carbon dioxide and are often lethal to their users. According to the World Health Organisation, a person dies every 20 seconds from illnesses brought on by inhaling the toxins in the soot from wood, animal dung or other detritus that serves as fuel.

A company funded by the charitable arm of Royal Dutch Shell, the oil giant, has developed a cheap and efficient stove that it says could save carbon and lives. Envirofit, a spinout from the University of Colorado, claims that its $20 (£13) stoves cut smoke and toxic emissions by 80%, and halve the amount of fuel that is needed. It aims to sell 10m in the developing world over the next five years.

This has been tried before. In India, where 400,000 people die every year from indoor air pollution, the government gave away 20m new stoves in the late 1990s. The initiative failed because the new kit was of poor quality and there was a lack of aftercare. Most people went back to cooking with their old stoves.

What is different this time, said Simon Bishop, head of policy at the Shell Foundation, is that Envirofit is approaching it as a money-making venture. “Everything we do is about applying business thinking to poverty and environmental issues. There is never going to be enough aid to go around so what you need to do is to focus our limited resources on self-financing mechanisms that can make a big impact.”

The Shell Foundation put up $10m of the $25m raised to roll out Envirofit’s stoves across India and is leading an awareness-raising campaign called Breathing Space.

The stoves are made with an alloy that survives much longer in a high-temperature caustic environment than traditional models. Its insulated chamber is better at holding in heat, cutting down on energy loss and so saving on fuel.

Envirofit is keen to avoid the mistakes of India’s first attempt at tackling the problem. Tying stove sales into micro-finance initiatives, which give credit to lowincome clients, is critical. The Shell Foundation’s work includes using vans that spread the word by travelling round villages in India putting on street theatre or employing someone to go door-to-door promoting the stoves.

For poor families it’s a big investment. Convincing the head of the household of its worth is no easy task. Harish Anchan, Envirofit India’s general manager, said: “For a man on the Indian subcontinent, giving over 20% of the monthly household budget to something his wife wants is a big decision.”


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