Lack of safe access to cooking fuel is a significant challenge for refugees worldwide. According to UNHCR’s first large-scale assessment of 3,308 refugee households in Chad, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, the vast majority (about 90%) rely on firewood for cooking. Members of these households spend an average of 31 hours per month on firewood collection – time that could otherwise be invested in more productive activities such as studying, working, and family care. Moreover, many of these refugees have experienced conflict with host community members while collecting firewood.
Since 2012, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and its partners - Caritas Burkina Faso (OCADES) and HELP - have been working to introduce renewable energy for cooking into Saag-Nioniogo, Mentao, and Goudoubo refugee camps in Burkina Faso. One solar-powered cooker, the Blazing Tube, has met with considerable success among the Malian refugees in the camps.
“Before the introduction of the stove, refugee women had to walk several hours a day to collect firewood,” says Olivier Lompo, UNHCR Environmental Officer in Burkina Faso. “Since we have a lot of sunshine, the stove allows them to cook without spending any more time on firewood collection. And, more importantly, it does not produce any smoke - they love it.”
In total, UNHCR delivered Blazing Tube cookers to 601 households (1 per household), ranging from two to eight family members each. Feedback from the families indicate that the cooker has reduced their firewood collection time by two to three times, enabling them to spend time on other tasks and to use distributed firewood sparingly.
Operation of a Blazing Tube requires approximately 5 liters of vegetable oil. A solar reflector generates heat, which is transferred to an electronic glass tube containing the oil. When heated, vegetable oil becomes more fluid and is more likely to transfer the energy it carries to aluminum objects. A portion of the oil overflows into a container, into which a cooking pot is placed, creating a bain-marie.
At its peak of operation, the vegetable oil can reach 200 °C or more, enabling fry cooking, as well as the ability to cook several different types of food. Moreover, ingredients can be added gradually instead of having to be cooked all at once. A cooking box incorporated into the unit enables heat retention, helping to keep food warm for hours.
UNHCR views the gradual introduction of renewable energy sources for cooking into refugee camps as an alternative to firewood distribution programs. Although providing firewood directly to refugees effectively reduces the risk of disease from uncooked food and the possibility of being subjected to violence while collecting fuel, it is not a sustainable strategy. Average firewood usage in Mentao camp alone, for example, reached approximately 33 tons per month. The environmental impact of firewood distribution could lead to irreversible land degradation if remedial measures are not taken.
Based on UNHCR’s monitoring process since 2013, the step-by-step strategy for introducing solar cookers into the camps has proven very beneficial, and enthusiasm for the technology among the refugees demonstrates a significant willingness to adopt solar energy as an alternative to firewood. UNHCR is targeting refugees who are already working with partners in domestic energy, as these individuals facilitate training in (and dissemination of) improved cookstoves among their peers.