On International Women's Day, WFP Highlights Impacts of SAFE Stoves for Women in Darfur (c) WFP/Marco Frattini 2013
© WFP/Marco Frattini 2013

How Safe Stoves are Lifting Millions of Women Out of Poverty

This International Women's Day, we're highlighting one of the smartest—and simplest—innovations to improve the lives of women and girls.

March 8, 2017

Author: Lauren Carter

This article has been cross-posted from The World Food Programme USA. The original article and images are available here

For Insaf, a mother of seven displaced by violence in Darfur, a stove not only transformed the way her family eats — but how they put food on the table.

For most of her life, Insaf had to walk on foot to search and collect firewood to cook for her family – a daily task that put her life in danger in a region still plagued by ongoing violence.

Even after fleeing her home to live in a camp for displaced families, Insaf struggled – like so many women – by spending hours of her day collecting firewood in a landscape where trees are few and far between.

But then Insaf discovered the World Food Programme’s Safe Access to Fuel and Energy (SAFE) Initiative, where she spent nearly two weeks learning how to make fuel-efficient simple stoves and fire briquettes.

Now she’s not just using them for her own family – she’s selling them for additional income.

WFP has not only given my family food, it has also given me a skill I can use to help my husband support our children,” Insaf told WFP staffer Abdulaziz Abdulmomin.

"If young girls have to walk hours a day to collect wood, what time will they have for education?"

Cooking over an open fire is one of the most common health, and safety hazards in developing countries. Most families in low-income countries rely on this method of cooking to prepare meals.

It’s also one of the highest causes of death in developing countries, and is the second biggest health risk for women and girls worldwide. In some places, it even ranks first. In fact, smoke inhalation from the burning of solid fuels kills 4.3 million people each year. Women and children under five are especially vulnerable.

Women and girls are often responsible for both collecting firewood and cooking. This means they venture out in potentially unsafe areas exposing themselves to the risk of gender-based violence, wild animal attacks and even landmines.

“Now, I do not need to wander to far from the camp to collect firewood and I feel a lot safer,” Insaf says.

Searching for firewood also contributes to a reduction in time spent in school. At a George Washington University Food Institute event in January on “The Interconnectivity of Cookstoves, Sustainability, and Diet,” acclaimed chef José Andrés remarked, “If young girls have to walk hours a day to collect wood, what time will they have for education?”

This kind of “time poverty” keeps vulnerable households – especially women and girls – from productive activities outside of the home like training and farming. 

The challenges from inefficient cookstoves are especially apparent in refugee or other humanitarian settings, where resources are scarce. “Refugee situations can put even greater stress on wood resources for cookstoves, leading to conflict,” World Food Program USA’s President and CEO Rick Leach told the audience at the George Washington University event. This is because resources are depleted, making it hard for them to find efficient fuel with a lot of people competing for the same means.

In areas where firewood is not available, some families are forced to either sell part of their food rations to buy fuel, undercook or skip meals completely, leading to malnutrition. In North Darfur, for example, 80 percent of households surveyed reported selling part of their rations to purchase firewood.

There are serious environmental consequences from inefficient cookstoves as well. Fragile ecosystems often cannot withstand the loss of trees and vegetation that are cut down for traditional wood-fired stoves. The result is deforestation, erosion, and damage to land that is already vulnerable.

To help address these far-ranging consequences, WFP launched SAFE in 2009. By 2015, SAFE was in 18 countries, helping 6 million people with fuel efficient stove distribution, training, and other sources of fuel (like briquettes) to families and schools. WFP aims to reach 10 million people by 2020 (called the 10 x 20 campaign).

WFP is also a founding member of the UN Foundation-led Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. WFP is helping the Alliance and their devotion to help 100 million homes adopt clean and fuel efficient cookstoves by 2020.

Innovations like WFP’s stafe stoves are one of the smartest and simplest tools to achieve zero-hunger. They help women like Insaf safely and sustainably cook meals for the family, while preserving their wellbeing and environment for generations to come.