Blog: Stoves that save, update on Haiti and beyond

Readers may remember a story from the July issue of EPM, about Poet partnering with an organization bringing clean-burning ethanol cook stoves to Haiti. Here's more about what's happening now, in Haiti and with other similar projects.
By Holly Jessen | January 25, 2016

On the first business day of January, I posted a blog about the most-read stories of 2015. No. 2 on the list was “Stoves that Save,” about ethanol-burning cook stoves. In case you missed it, here are the highlights. Poet LLC donated ethanol, shipping it to Haiti, where the fuel was distributed with cook stoves for Haitian residents. The company partnered with Project Gaia, which is actively working on cook stove projects in multiple countries, and Novogaz, which was established specifically to distribute the stoves in Haiti. 

If you are anything like me, you have no idea what a big deal it might be for a Haitian family to have one of these stoves. The thing is, most people in Haiti cook over charcoal stoves. Charcoal is not only a dirty and inconvenient to use fuel but the indoor pollution from charcoal actually shortens lifespans by about 6.6 years, according to the United Nations. Then there’s the fact that Haiti’s forests are nearly gone, due to the harvesting of wood for cook stoves. (At the time our story was published, only 2 percent of Haiti’s forest cover remained.)

And, as I learned while researching for this blog, women are actually put in physical danger while gathering wood so they can cook and feed their families. You can read here about Somali women in Ethiopian refugee camps who are beaten and sometimes raped while they travel five miles, scouring the land for wood. By giving these refugees ethanol cook stoves, it keeps them safer and also gives them more time. “They report that because of the stoves, they now have extra time to properly care for and supervise their children,” writes intern Nick Lorenz. “In some cases, the time saved allows them to receive an education, or start a new business.” (Read more about the 6,893 ethanol cool stoves in refugee camps in Ethiopia here.)

So what’s happening in Haiti now? Well, more families have purchased the stoves, which also help lower the cost of cooking food. According to Jean-Francois Hibbert of Novogaz about 300 ethanol cook stoves were sold in Haiti in December alone. Two Novogaz stores have been established and the stoves are also sold at other locations, such as supermarkets and smaller retail stores.

While that’s important progress, there’s still a long ways to go. “There are about 3 million families that use charcoal for cooking in Haiti, so our target market are those 3 million families,” Hibbert said. “The most important part of the project is to be able to reduce the cost of the stove to $20 from our current price of $25. The biggest hurdle for these families is the cost of the stove and not the fuel. We are working with our partners Poet, Project Gaia and Clean Cook to develop a stove that will retail for less than $20.”

After Poet donated two loads of ethanol, or 12,000 gallons, Novogaz will purchase their first commercial shipment from Poet in early 2016, Brady Luceno of Poet told Ethanol Producer Magazine. “Poet continues to support this project and interact with Project Gaia and Novogaz on ways in the emerging ethanol fuel and stove market can be further innovated,” he said. “In the future, Poet and partners hope to see more ethanol-powered appliances become available in Haiti.”

Because, ultimately, the idea isn’t just to ship U.S.-produced ethanol to Haiti. Novogaz and Poet would like to see the people of Haiti producing their own ethanol from locally grown sweet sorghum and sugar cane. “We need to reach scale of at least 20,000 stoves before a small micro distillery project can be started that is economically feasible. Until such time we will continue to import fuel from Poet,” Hibbert said. “Our goal is to produce locally as soon as possible and continue to import ethanol as needed. I would point to a similar project that was developed here by the local Heineken owned brewery where they have helped local farmers increase their sorghum grain yields and in return 18,000 farmers now sell their grain to Heineken to produce a malt beverage that was previously using imported grain to distill the beverage.”

Of course, Haiti isn’t the only place where ethanol cook stoves are badly needed. Project Gaia is primarily active in Ethiopia, Haiti, Nigeria and Kenya, but other places as well, said Alex Milano of that organization. In November, Project Gacia signed an agreement with Shell’s Nigerian production division to purchase a total of 2,500 ethanol stoves and 15,000 fuel canisters for distribution in Nigeria. Stove pilot studies have also been conducted in Zanzibar, Madagascar, Malawi and South Africa.

And the idea of a micro distillery isn’t new to Haiti. In October, a 1,000 liter a day ethanol plant was built in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. (My math says if it ran full out every day it would produce about 96,400 gallons in a year.) More than 3,000 stoves have been sold in that location, Milano said. Although the waste molasses-to-ethanol plant isn’t yet in full operation, work to solve logistical challenges is ongoing and expected to be resolved soon. “The ethanol produced will be sold by the women of the Former Women Fuelwood Carriers Association, a woman's cooperative with over 4,000 members in Addis that seeks to provide alternative livelihoods for women who previously collected and sold firewood for a living,” Milano said. “The FWFCA women will eventually assume the management of the plant.”

Milano also told me that Project Gaia began with a research project in the 1990s. In the beginning the focus was on methanol. Although the organization still sees methanol as a promising fuel he laid out several reasons why ethanol offers interesting opportunities. Here are those points, as written by Milano.  

-        It can be made from nearly anything. This includes agriwastes.

-        It is scaleable: Ethanol can be produced on a large or small scale. Small scale production is of particular interest to us (hence the ethanol micro distilleries) as it can help communities produce their own energy using locally available feedstocks. Moreover, small scale ethanol production can significantly benefit communities with small holder or cooperative farming systems.

-        Economic benefits: Small scale ethanol production can deliver a variety of economic benefits to communities by creating an additional market for farmers/outgrowers and new employment opportunities associated with the running of a distillery, fuel sales, etc.

-        Environmental benefits: Quality ethanol, when burned in a clean cookstoves, emits far less carbon and GHG than other more common forms cooking, i.e. charcoal, firewood, etc. Moreover, in areas where firewood is the primary source of fuel for cooking, the use of ethanol slows deforestation rates. We like to say that in situations like this, ethanol can shift the source of household energy from the forests to farmers' fields.

-        Social benefits: Especially when displacing firewood, ethanol has important gender implications. When ethanol replaces dirty fuels, women are no longer required to travel long distances for firewood (with high opportunity costs and in some cases, at great risk) are not exposed to indoor air pollution. Moreover, women can be incorporated into ethanol value chains, as we are in the process of doing in Ethiopia with the FWFCA.

To wrap up an already long post, I just want to add that I think what Poet did in Haiti and what Project Gaia is doing with cook stoves in general is such an amazing thing. If you or your company is interested in donating money to purchase stoves and/or fuel, you can do so at this webpage. 

Another way to get involved would be to donate shippments of ethanol, as Poet did last year. Or, perhaps Project Gaia needs ethanol production experts to travel to help get things going at one of their existing or planned micro distilleries. Anyone interested in helping in one of those ways should reach out to Project Gaia. And, if you or your company gets involved like that, be sure to let us know by emailing me at [email protected]. We'd love to hear about it! 

UPDATE: A reader question about the possibility of people choosing to drink ethanol that is intended for cook stoves has been answered Hibbert of Novogaz. "We are well aware of the issue of attempted use of denatured ethanol as a beverage or unintended ingestions by children. The ethanol that is imported from Poet is denatured with Bitrex and a blue colorant. There is no methanol in the product as it is extremely toxic if ingested. Bitrex is officially the most bitter substance known to man. It is inert and odorless, but only tiny amounts are needed to make products taste unpalatable. Children are particularly sensitive to bitter tastes, which makes Bitrex a powerful deterrent to accidental swallowing. Project Gaia has been using this formulation for over 10 years and there has not been one toxic ingestion."

Harry Stokes of Project Gaia further followed up that, "We never have any problem with accidental ingestion. The denaturing is very effective. The fuel is repugnant to the taste. Because the ethanol is 95% strength (fuel grade), it is not appropriate to even associate it with beverage ethanol. At the same time, because it is ethanol and not gasoline or kerosene, toxicity is low. This too is a risk mitigator. We have over 15 million directly monitored stove use days of experienced in Africa."