Innovative Solutions in Sudan

Innovative Solutions in Sudan

Cathy Bergman, Mercy Corps' Program Officer for Sudan, discusses an innovation that has decreased the need for firewood.
Thatcher Cook/Mercy Corps
Mercy Corps works with women in the Darfur region to empower themselves and their communities. Linda Mason/Mercy Corps

In 2003 rebels took up arms against the government in the western region of Sudan. This caused more than 2 million people to flee their homes and become Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). Mercy Corps has been serving IDPs in this region since late 2004, providing access to clean water, improving sanitation, distributing essential items and providing skills-building activities for women. The organization is now serving 155,000 individuals in the Darfur region, and the numbers keep growing. Cathy Bergman has been with Mercy Corps since 2005 and shares her thoughts on one program that aims to help women improve their livelihood by building fuel efficient stoves.

Q: How did the concept for fuel efficient stoves start?

Cathy Bergman: The concept began for a variety of reasons. It came from both the need to reduce the amount of firewood used as well as protect the women in the IDP camps. Mercy Corps started quickly after we began programs in 2004. Traditionally the Sudanese live out in villages where it's easy for fragile forests to restore themselves, only a few people are cutting things down every once and awhile. But when you get gathered together hundreds and thousands of people in one place, like in the IDP camps, it becomes unsustainable. This is really a secondary consideration however. The main concern most NGOs have is keeping the women safe. Women are in danger when they leave the camps. They are being attacked. So when they leave the camps to collect firewood they are putting themselves in danger. But when they don't collect the firewood they can't cook their food. So they collect firewood anyway and it creates an enormous problem.

How far away is the firewood they are collecting?

Further and further away every day. Depending on which camp, which location, it could easily take a full day to collect enough firewood for about a week.

The main concern most NGOs have is keeping the women safe. Women are in danger when they leave the camps. They are being attacked.

What are the stoves made of?

All local materials - water, clay-the soil, straw and/or donkey dung. It's a kind of low quality ceramic. It takes 4 days to complete a stove, not full days, but that's how long the process takes. The stoves are reasonably durable, and portable, but they will break if you drop them and they are relatively heavy. They are incredibly easy to make which is part of the point of the program. We bring women together and they are trained on how to make them.

How are the trainings conducted?

A group of women will come together for the training, probably a dozen women per session. Mercy Corps staff provides all the materials and a leader takes the group through the 4 day process. Each woman who participates in the program agrees to teach 10 other women how to make the stoves. During one training session, the group will produce more than 100 stoves. Each participant takes a stove for herself then gives away the extras. These go to households who can't take part in the training or can't collect firewood including the elderly, disabled and child-headed households. After the 4 day training there's a graduation ceremony. I was able to attend one, and the people were so excited. They were so full of pride when they received their certificate. Instead of being the victim now they are taking charge of their environment. Rather than things happening to them, they can do something.

What are the benefits of the fuel efficient stoves?

Mercy Corps stoves reduce the need for firewood by 50-65 percent. Our initial hope was that it would keep the women from having to leave the camp so often. What it actually turned into in many cases is women still left, collected the same amount of firewood and then sold it on the markets. By doing this they are able to buy better food for their family. So it also turned into a livelihood benefit, depending on their comfort level in the risks involved. The tertiary benefit was less depletion of forests. Forest is a relative word - by no means what we would call a forest here in the Pacific Northwest. Darfur has a very fragile landscape with meager amounts of wood. I read somewhere that a family of 6 in Darfur requires 14 whole trees to fuel a year of cooking needs. If you have 20,000 households in one area you can imagine the effect that would have. Also, they used to live in very open villages, compounds where they could sit outside and cook over open fires. Now they are in more confined camps where they are cooking inside. So the stoves reduced their exposure to smoke which was causing respiratory problems.

So it also turned into a livelihood benefit, depending on their comfort level in the risks involved. The tertiary benefit was less depletion of forests.

How successful is the program?

In some areas of operation we've already achieved full coverage on stoves. In Mukjar, an area with 14,000 people, almost all households have them. So we are not doing a whole lot of new training sessions except when new people arrive in the camp. It's been so successful and so well adapted that everyone has the stoves. And we're reaching other areas too, this area just happens to be smaller.

How many women have been trained to make the stoves?

I saw a figure that said 5,000 women have been trained, but I think that's really low. Indirectly though, I would say almost all of our beneficiaries have benefited one way or another.

How many other communities beside Mukjar are we working in?

Two others, Um Dukhun which is about the same size maybe a little bigger-where we only started a year ago. And we're also in Zalingei, which is enormous, with 100,000 people.

Are there entrepreneurial benefits for the women making the fuel efficient stoves?

I haven't heard of anyone selling the stoves. So many people are giving them away I don't think they have any value. That being said, once things are peaceful and everyone goes home and is happy again, these skills could be used for monetary gain. I can see how it could be an income generating activity. Right now there are inadvertent entrepreneurial benefits since the women have started selling their extra firewood which improves livelihoods.

Are there any other benefits to integrating fuel efficient stoves in Sudan?

To add on to all the wonderful benefits there is actually a psychosocial benefit. It gets the women together. Often whole villages are displaced together, so people will know their neighbors. But in other times they don't. And in Africa in villages you know your neighbors like you know yourself. You only know 100 people in your life and suddenly you're thrown out of those familiar situations and surrounded by thousands and thousands of strangers. And this is disorienting, not to mention the trauma you've been through from being displaced. So the stoves allow women to get together, become friends with other women, and develop support systems, there's a psychosocial benefit for the women involved. They make friends, not just working but talking and sharing experiences.

Contributed by Cami Martin, a writer for Mercy Corps. Cami has a BA in English from the University of Oregon and works for Mercy Corps.

To read another Global Envision article about Mercy Corps work in Sudan, see My Journey to Um Dukhun.

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