A stove tester at the Pratki lab (photo courtesy Pratki Design)

Designing cleaner, safer ways to cook in South India

U of T students and faculty work together to reduce fuel consumption, indoor air pollution

How do you design a stove that is cleaner and more energy-efficient than an open fire or rudimentary appliance, but inexpensive enough that even those with low incomes can use it?

How do you convince people who have been using a particular kind of stove or cooking practice for generations to adopt something new?

That’s what a team of students and professors from across the University of Toronto went to South India to discover.

“According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, nearly three billion people are using solid fuels for cooking,” says the team’s lead, Mimi Liu. “Exposure to smoke from traditional cooking practices causes four million premature deaths per year, and women and children are the most affected. Household fuel combustion also contributes to climate change, poor households often spend a significant portion of their income on cooking fuel, and women and girls can spend many hours collecting fuel and cooking.”

Prakti Design, an award-winning social enterprise based in South India, is trying to do something about it. They’ve developed a line of household and institutional clean cook stoves that lessen fuel consumption by up to 80 per cent, reduce indoor air pollution by up to 100 per cent and cut down cooking time by up to 70 per cent — compared to traditional three-stone fires — by using biomass fuels from wood, charcoal and briquettes.

“Reducing emissions in the home can improve respiratory health outcomes, especially for young children,” says Hayden Rodenkirchen, an international relations student. “For families or institutions that have to buy wood, the fuel-efficiency of these stoves can save them money over time. For those who have to gather wood, the fuel-efficiency means fewer trips into the woods and lighter loads to carry.”

Prakti invited U of T’s Global Innovation Group — a network of professors interested in poverty and innovation in developing countries — to help research and address challenges related to clean cook stove technology, distribution and adoption. Joseph Wong, political science professor, Canada Research Chair in Health and Development and Ralph and Roz Halbert Professor of Innovation, curated the U of T researcher team, which included Stanley Zlotkin, a nutritional sciences and pediatrics professor and chief of Global Child Health at Sick Kids Hospital; Yu-Ling Cheng, a chemical engineering professor; and Poornima Vinoo, a research assistant at the Rotman School of Management.

The trip and student research team were brought together by Liu, an undergraduate student in economics and peace, conflict and justice. Liu first encountered Prakti last year during a study abroad exchange when she worked on partnerships and fundraising for the social enterprise. In addition to Liu and Rodenkirchen, the student team included Kay Dyson Tam of psychology and peace, conflict and justice; Seemi Qaiser of global health studies and Tameka Deare of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering.

For months before the trip to India, the student team gathered secondary research, conducted phone interviews with experts, wrote briefings and made presentations on clean cook stove technologies, distribution models, adoption patterns and impacts. The group then travelled to Chennai, Puducherry, and Auroville in South India for about a week in March 2014. While there, the students conducted interviews with diverse stakeholders including users, designers, manufacturers, distributors, funders and researchers.

One memorable series of interviews involved speaking with women in their homes in villages near Puducherry. One of the students asked about the women’s experiences with wood collection, a task that occupies many women in rural areas of India for many hours a week.

“They all erupted and started shouting,” says Rodenkirchen. “All that our translator could say was ‘they really, really hate it!’”

“Women also recommended larger openings in the stoves, so they wouldn’t have to chop wood into such small pieces,” says Liu. “Clean cook stoves need to be designed iteratively with more input from end-users and sustained testing in homes.”

The group found that clean cook stoves have the greatest potential to provide cleaner cooking solutions for households in low-to-mid-range incomes. Their findings are published on the Asian Institute website.

Wong is thrilled to have been able to give the students a global experience.

“The students are able to recognize that they can, in fact, make a difference,” he says. “There are careers to be made out of social innovations like this.”

Qaiser agrees. “I wanted a chance to apply my skills and learn to evaluate a health intervention in a real-world context and I got to do just that. It was incredible.”

The students’ research was supported by the Dean’s International Initiatives Fund in the Faculty of Arts & Science — a new A&S program in which undergraduate students apply for funding for innovative international experience — as well as the Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs and the Centre for Global Engineering.

Jessica Lewis is a writer with the Faculty of Arts & Science at the University of Toronto.

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