by Fred Colgan
There are three Darfur political regions – Northern, Southern and Western – covering an immense tract of land and containing a very complex political and social situation. For the moment, there’s relative stability after years of horrendous conflict. The landscape is very harsh, reminiscent of the deserts of Nevada and Arizona. Competition for scarce resources is intense and the recent conflicts have turned a large percentage of the population into nomads. Firewood gathering is a major occupation, since most people prepare their meals on three-stone fires. A large brickmaking industry, which fires brick kilns with wood, places additional demands on firewood supplies.
Firewood market in El Fasher
We arrived Monday in El Fasher, the capital of Northern Darfur. We will be here one week working with the UN World Food Programme (WFP) to arrange for the installation of 100 of our stoves. Next week we travel to Nyala, the capital of Southern Darfur, where we will repeat the exercise with 100 stoves for that region. All 200 stoves will be placed in school feeding programs associated with IDP (internally displaced persons) camps.
We are staying at a very secure WFP residential compound, with a wonderful group of people all dedicated to the work of serving the poor. We have a private room that is modest but surprisingly well put together, the compound is quite pleasant, and everybody here is incredibly friendly. The atmosphere feels like family. Truly an international community – I’ve met people here from eight or so African countries plus Australia, India, Canada, and Singapore. Most are WFP personnel, but some are contractors like me.
Yesterday we assembled the first container of stoves and set them up for use. There were some repairs to be made, given that the container journey from Cottage Grove was six long months, the roads are not great, and the handling of the stoves on this end can be a little rough. One guy in the WFP warehouse told me “We didn’t know what these things were, and weren’t sure exactly what we were handling.” Stoves will be distributed to schools starting next week along with food allotments, some of which will be traveling many days by truck.
Our stoves in UN warehouse in El Fasher
The heart of our consultancy here is training cooks in the use of 60 Liter Stoves. The success or failure of new cooking technologies hinges on the acceptance by the cooks. If they don’t love the stoves, they will not be used.
WFP has been making huge numbers of improved stoves in Darfur – 154,000 to date – for family use. The stove design they are using here is a hybrid sunken-pot model, made of clay with an iron grate. Individuals bring their own pots and come build a stove to fit that particular pot at a cost of about one dollar. Fuel savings (estimated at above 60%) pay for these stoves very quickly, and since the women make their own stoves, when the first one breaks or wears out (usually about a year), they can make a replacement easily. In this culture, WFP as part of the UN-sponsored “SAFE Initiative” is encouraging families to move away from firewood gathering as their principal economic activity, and return to their traditional ways of farming and animal husbandry. WFP is also initiating a large briquette-making operation, and building biogas systems in some schools. The work of Amit Singh, my WFP friend and new hero, is hugely visionary and showing spectacular results.
Yesterday we began classes teaching 180 cooks improved stove principles and the basics of 60 Liter Stove operation. Today we conducted the first of two days of cooking demonstrations in a school with 197 participants and five stoves. These training groups are made up of cooks and UN “school feeding program focal point people.” The focal point people will be introducing the stoves in rural schools. We prepared similar meals on our stove side-by-side with three stone fires to give visual demonstration of fuel savings. It was quite a challenge to use only five stoves with such a large group of trainees – picture, if you will, a “five-ring circus”! We will continue this hands-on training with the same group tomorrow.
The results of today’s tests varied from 60-75% fuel savings. This was the first trial of the stoves, and we are only beginning to teach basic operations of our stove, focusing especially on fuel management. It is counter-intuitive for the cooks to use tiny amounts of wood, particularly after boiling has been achieved. We can extrapolate from results today that with practice, Darfur cooks will achieve fuel savings more consistent with our past experience, ranging from 75-90%.
On Saturday we begin installations in schools in IDP camps.* I am not sure I am prepared for the reality of life in the camps. This is, however, the mission Damon and I set out on several years back – to bring our technology to serve the “poorest of the poor”. With a lot of help and support along the way – first and foremost from our wives - we are beginning to realize our dreams and start impacting real lives.
Unfortunately photography here is generally illegal. This is a security state just post-conflict, and there are severe penalties for photography – from confiscation of cameras to arrest – so your correspondent will not be pushing the envelope to get images from the street or countryside back to you all. That said, we have been able to get permission to do some specific photography of our activities.
This is a grand opportunity to show off our stoves for WFP, and we are excited to have major field trials conducted by the UN. We believe our stove is a breakthrough technology with vast applications around the world, and we can only benefit from third-party testing and (we are confident) ultimate acceptance and embracing of our stoves by real cooks in real-world institutional feeding programs.
More news from Darfur as soon as possible, but internet access here is quite limited, so there are no guarantees of scheduled blog posts.
My best to you all from sunny Darfur,
*Note: Fred was unable to go to the camps in the El Fasher area due to security issues, but will be going to camps in the southern area near Nyala.