Fired Up: Building a Better Cook Stove

The metal cauldron cook stoves that people in developing countries use are simple in design. You fill them with a form of coal, the way you would a barbeque. When a person in a place like Ethiopia or the Congo needs to prepare a meal for her family (and women do much of the cooking in the countries that use cook stoves) there’s no gas or electric hotplate to fire up. She has to light the coals.

It’s not the most efficient way to cook. But we went to Vashon Island just west of Seattle to understand how cook stoves are actually getting better—and improving a whole host of other issues as they do. “Cook stoves are really a nexus for every environmental problem you can imagine,” Peter Scott told us. A more efficient stove means that young girls don’t have to go collect wood or coal as often, leaving them more time to get an education and advocate for change in their communities. A more efficient stove also alleviates poor indoor air quality, a problem that kills about two million people a year, according to the National Institutes of Health. Finding a way to make coal burn cleaner not only limits deforestation, it also helps cut down on greenhouse gases that are warming the planet.

Burn founder Peter Scott wants to create the world's most efficient cook stove. Photo by Spencer Millsap / NGM Staff
Burn Labs founder Peter Scott wants to create the world’s most efficient cook stove. Photo by Spencer Millsap / NGM Staff

A few years ago, Scott started a company called the Burn Design Lab. He had spent some time living in several parts of Africa and wanted to create the best cook stove possible.That meant making the heat last a long time with minimal fuel. It’s a constant process of innovation. One of Burn’s stoves, known as the Jiko Poa, is about 45 percent more efficient than cooking over an open fire.

What makes a good cook stove? The design of the stove has an impact on how much heat is retained. The hotter it stays, the less fuel needed at the onset. Natural gas may be an abundant and efficient way to keep a fire going, but many countries in the developing world don’t have adequate fuel distribution lines. While that problem gets worked out, people still need to cook every day.

To meet the needs of everyone who needs a better stove, there is still a way to go. For the roughly 2.5 billion people around the world who still cook over open fires, Burn Labs is aiming to distribute 3.5 million stoves. The stoves are designed to be made for $15 and sold for $40.

The day we visited Burn, one of its top employees was getting ready to board a plane to Kenya. One of the newest prototypes had an eager audience waiting near Nairobi. The power of the stoves isn’t in the stoves themselves, Scott told us. Their real potential is what else people can accomplish when they don’t need to worry about stoves at all.

Changing Planet