Research, Technology & engineering, Science & environment

Cheap, efficient cookstoves are small-tech solution with big payoff

By Robert Sanders

Ashok Gadgil redesigned a simple technology, the wood-burning stove, to help Sudanese refugee women cook more efficiently, thus sparing them from the dangers of gathering firewood far from camp.

In the developing world, sometimes the simplest technology can have the largest payoff.

That’s the lesson learned by Ashok Gadgil, a UC Berkeley professor of civil and environmental engineering and Berkeley Lab researcher who was asked in 2005 to help Sudanese refugee women whose daily search for wood outside the camps imperiled their lives.

As an expert on indoor air pollution and energy efficiency, Gadgil gathered his students and set to work designing and building a better cookstove. Their solution was an efficient and inexpensive wood-burning stove that could be manufactured for $20 and which used half the wood as typical open cooking fires, freeing women from much of the danger inherent in wood gathering.

Through a nonprofit in Mumbai, India, the Berkeley Darfur Stove project was able to deliver stoves to women in the refugee camps and dramatically improve their lives. In addition, the stove design eliminated much of the smoke that makes chronic respiratory disease endemic throughout the developing world, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.

In a talk last May at Cal Future Forum, Gadgil argued that Berkeley’s work at the forefront of cookstove design can help women around the world, producing outsize benefits from modest investments in “small” technology.

View all Cal Future Forum videos