ETHOS stands for Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service Learning, and one of ETHOS’ core values is appropriate design. But, what exactly is meant by appropriate with regard to engineering and design in the developing world? Let’s take cookstoves as an example. According to the World Health Organization, about three billion people rely on simple biomass stoves to cook food and heat their homes, leading to 3.8 million premature deaths annually. In addition, continued use of traditional solid-fuel biomass cookstoves leads to increased deforestation and emission of carbon dioxide, methane, black carbon, and short lived climate pollutants. Needless to say, this is a serious problem receiving international attention.
In Ghana, many people (mostly women) use traditional mud frame cookstoves for the production of gari. Burro, the company that I have partnered with for the semester, has designed a cookstove (Gari Elephant) to allow small holders to fry more gari at once, increase ease of processing, and decrease fuel consumption. At first glance, it appears that many changes could be made to further reduce fuel consumption. For instance, using a grate would allow more air to mix with wood gases produced by pyrolysis of wood as well as pre-heating primary air over hot coals. Let’s say that experimentation shows a 15% reduction in fuel use with the addition of a grate. However, during product trials, no one wanted to use the grate for a variety of reasons, which I will not go into here. While there are generally ways to work around these problems via re-design, changes may add cost, which reduces overall affordability and adoption of the product.
Often, products designed for interventions are built with the purpose of achieving goals set in the laboratory; the end user may not always be the driving force behind the design. This highlights the importance of appropriate design. There’s real value in designing a cookstove that’s not meant to be one-size-fits-all, but rather, designing for individual processing techniques and accounting for local cultural factors. When it comes to saving lives and achieving measurable reductions in emissions, a cookstove with only moderate efficiency gains that has been designed for its intended audience will outperform ‘state of the art’ designs that don’t meet the needs of the people they are trying to serve. Indeed, much of the challenge of my work for the next four months will include balancing my desire to perfect the product with the best possible efficiency and emissions reductions with realistic practices that lead to adoption.