Udaipur Urja Initiatives and the Cookstove Project

The vast majority of families in southern Rajasthan use traditional stoves for cooking food, heating water and space, and preparing feed for cattle.  These stoves are traditionally three-stone fires on the ground or stoves built of mud, clay or cement, all of which lack a chimney and grate.  These stoves burn primarily wood, which has to be collected by women and children, and are only about 10% efficient, with most of the fuel not being burnt completely.  This leads to the emission of smoke, greenhouse gases and particulate matter which create pollution and are injurious to health.  As forestlands are rapidly reducing in this area, the women have had to walk further and further, taking longer and longer to collect the wood their family needs for fuel.

 
Mumbai-based Greenway Grameen Infra Pvt Ltd developed a new generation of stoves, shown in pilot studies to deliver fuel savings of between 50 and 70%, and minimize harmful emissions of CO, CO2 and particulate matter, without requiring significant changes in cooking habits.  Seva Mandir offered some suggestions, some of which were incorporated.  The stoves are neat and simple to use, lightweight so that they can be easily carried around (as most families in the area cook in different places seasonally) and have no moving parts so they are sturdy.  The design is inspired by rocket technology and has a vastly improved airflow compared with the old stoves.

 
In order to finance the purchase of stoves for the target 18,500 families in the Kherwara and Rishabhdev districts south of Udaipur, Seva Mandir came up with the idea of selling carbon credits which are generated when the families use the improved stoves instead of the old polluting stoves.  A company buys the credits, funding upfront the purchase of the new stoves.  The project is now registered with Gold Standard.

 
As Seva Mandir, being a not-for-profit organization, is legally not permitted to trade carbon credits, a separate entity was set up to implement this project, namely Udaipur Urja Initiatives Producer Company Ltd (UUI).  This social enterprise aims to enable rural and tribal communities in southern Rajasthan to reap commercial benefits from energy and agro-produce.  It is a membership-based company so member households invest in equity shares (Rs 10 per family).  Urja means energy so the company name reflects both the energy saved by the cookstoves and the energy generated within the communities involved in this new endeavour.

 

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We went on a field trip to meet some of the families who have been using the new stoves, and a few of the local women who have been recruited as monitors  – selecting families to receive the stoves, explaining their use and what is involved in joining UUI, as well as monitoring use of the new stoves.

 

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Our guide for the day is Ronak Shah, founder and CEO of the new UUI (interviewed elsewhere in this E-newsletter).  On the way to Kherwara block, 1½ hours’ drive south of Udaipur, Ronak explains that Seva Mandir carried out a series of pilots, working with families and the stove manufacturer to design the most effective and popular models which most closely matched the cooking habits of families.  Stove distribution started in earnest a month or so ago, and each family receives two stoves, a larger stove which can carry a 40 kg load, and a smaller one that takes 25 kg.  Families buy a Rs 10 share in UUI, sign an agreement which sets out the responsibilities of all involved, including the families’ agreement to use the new stoves and dismantle their traditional stoves, and their consent to UUI selling the carbon credits to the purchasing company.  The MRP of the cookstoves is Rs 4,000 a pair, but UUI has negotiated a price of Rs 3,000, covered by the sale of carbon credits.  The families pay Rs 500 towards the maintenance and repair of their stoves, and some of this amount will go to the village committee to cover their supervision of stove use.

 

The village institutions (a major focus of Seva Mandir’s work in all the villages it partners with) have an important role to play in this project, as they help spread information about stoves, select and monitor the performance of monitors, and help resolve conflicts.

 

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The baseline study shows that a family would use 3.1 metric tons of wood a year, and that the new stoves reduce consumption by between 50 and 70 %, saving 2.2 metric tons of carbon per family per year.

 

We arrive in the village of Jhuntri which has a population of tribal families and also Patels, relatively wealthy farmers.  The Patel community has traditionally not had much involvement with Seva Mandir and its development of local villages, largely because the families’ focus is on their own farming whereas Seva Mandir has been very active in protecting forestlands in the area, which are of little interest to the Patels.   But this community was quick to see the advantages of the new stoves, and approached UUI asking to take part in the project, which they are eligible to do provided they do not have a LPG (liquid petroleum gas) connection in their homes.

 

We visit a family of eight Patels, entering their house via a yard which is home to their buffaloes and cows.  The family have been using their two new UUI stoves for a month or so and are proud to show them off.

 

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They would normally cook in a dark room inside their mud-walled house, but to enable us to photograph them using their stoves they kindly move them to a lighter courtyard at the back of the house.  The women of the family are finding that they are consuming much less wood and cooking is faster – chai takes 3-5 minutes to make – so they now cook all their food on the two stoves.   They like the fact that they can move the stoves around.

 

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The mother now mainly works in the fields, leaving her college student daughter to do the cooking.  The younger woman looks forward to her brothers marrying in due course so that her sisters-in-law will share the work.  One of the brothers boasts that he cooks too – his sister accepts this, if a little reluctantly! While the women pose behind the new stoves, the boys line up on a wall looking cool!

 

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The second Patel home we visit is a spick and span modern concrete structure, with a mud-walled barn at the back.  The women choose to cook in the open between the two buildings, only moving inside when the monsoons come.  They use the ash produced by the stoves to clean their pots and nourish their plants.  Watching the stoves in use, UUI has realized that there needs to be provision for collecting the ash easily so it doesn’t blow about or fall to the floor, blackening it.  They are working with the manufacturers to address this issue.

 
These women too find that they use only about half the wood they used before and cooking is much quicker.

 
We look into the barn where the family cooks animal feed on an open floor-level fire and immediately see the trash collected for burning on the old open fire, which includes plastics.  Ronak explains that burning plastic produces toxic smoke that is very bad for health and urges them to stick to natural materials, like the okra trash they are drying in the barn for use when the wood pile becomes wet in the monsoon.

 

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We drive back to the tribal area of the village where a number of the women have gathered to meet us and where two new recruits will receive their stoves.

 

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Ronak introduces us to the assembled women and a few men, and tells us that the village has a very active women’s Self-Help Group (SHG) which has been successful in securing grants from the Rajasthan government.  The SHGs which Seva Mandir has set up throughout the villages with which it works enable women to contribute regularly to a central fund, which they manage, and take out loans to help with educating children, paying for health care, building toilets and funding purchases to help them invest in some livelihood activity.  Not only do women find it much easier to secure a loan from the SHG of which they are members (not surprisingly, much more sympathetic than the banks), the rates of interest are also much more affordable: 2% a month compared with often extortionate rates charged by the moneylenders who are often the only source of loans for villagers.  Of this 2%, half is kept by the SHG and the rest given to the cluster of SHGs with which it is associated.

 
We ask the women how they are getting on with the new stoves and the response is overwhelmingly positive and enthusiastic.  They tell us that there were challenges early on – they had to get used to the fact that food cooked more quickly and that the stoves burned less wood.  The wood also needs to be chopped into smaller pieces, so they needed to make a few adjustments.  But now they all seem very happy with the stoves.  They mostly enjoy cooking outside, and find it useful to have two different sizes of stove.  The natural tendency seems to be to start cooking on the bigger of the two, but they quickly work out the best way of using their stoves.  Traditionally they have used earthen cooking pots and tawas (the flat frying pans used for making rotis) but are now moving more towards iron utensils which also speed up cooking time.

 
They are keen to ask us about our village, and what and how we cook back in the UK.

 
Wood collection has been a big part of their lives: the women do this from 5 to 10 am every morning for a whole month in winter, taking their livestock with them to graze at the same time.  They walk on average 4-5 km one way, and make two trips a day, collecting 25 kg each on one trip, so 50 kg of wood a day, all carried on their heads.  As the new stoves use roughly half the wood that the old ones burned, this should mean that they can halve the amount of time they spend collecting wood – either collecting one year in two, or making only one trip a day for the month they devote to this activity.  The process has become such a part of their lives that they think they will continue to go every day, taking their goats with them, but making only one trip a day.  They will have to think about what to do with the time gained!

 
Although all the women say they cook all their families’ food on the new stoves, the jury is still out with regard to cooking animal feed.  Some are trying this on the new stoves, but some find that, as the new stoves need them to add wood more frequently, they can’t be left simmering for the hour that the feed takes, so they prefer the old methods.  Each family has its preferred method of preparing animal feed so the suggestion that they might prepare it in one batch with other families does not meet with approval.

 
The last E-newsletter featured SBI fellow Nupur Ghuliani explaining how she was developing biomass briquettes made of leaves and agri-waste as an alternative to fuelwood.  The new stoves can burn these briquettes and there is a plan to introduce them shortly as a pilot.

 

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A couple of families are receiving their new stoves today, which involves signing the paperwork (copies of their ID, the agreement with UUI, a questionnaire on their family and livestock etc) and receiving instructions on the use of the stoves.  Each family is given a calendar on which to record their usage – a tick for days on which they use the new stoves, a cross for days when they use the old stoves.  These will be regularly monitored, and the local monitors will make random checks and collect monthly usage data.  The families also receive a poster with instructions and dos and don’ts for the new stoves to ensure correct and safe use.

 
We visit a couple of tribal houses in the village, clearly more prosperous than many other tribal villages in the area.  We walk past courtyards where wood is stacked, and visit a woman who seems keen on keeping all her options open since she has an old three-stone fire on the ground, a couple of kerosene stoves, and her two new UUI-supplied stoves.  Kerosene is hard to come by, and she says she is getting on quite well with the new stoves, impressed by the economy of wood and speed of cooking – but we sense that she is not yet fully convinced!  The UUI monitor may need to visit to make sure she is really converted to the new way of cooking food.

 

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We also see a pit dug in the ground, over which she cooks animal feed, burning wood and rubbish under the pot.

 

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Her neighbour has a smaller family – two parents and two small boys – so she is finding she only uses the small stove for now.  She too is pleased with the economy and speed of the new model.

 
UUI is delighted with the speed of uptake of the new stoves – double what they had expected.  This rapid success is largely explained by the relative prosperity of the villagers here, who do not find it as hard to raise Rs 500 as many people in other areas would do.  It may be that in other areas SHGs will be able to help families afford this sum, thus enabling them to save on wood and time, but it has proved harder to set up effective SHGs in poorer villages.  UUI is keen to extend the project to poorer communities, but this is a good beginning.

 
We return to Udaipur thoroughly impressed with this new project, the research that has gone into it, the care taken to explain and monitor use of the new stoves, and the enthusiasm with which the stoves have been taken up by the villagers of Kherwara.  It has been interesting to see how the modern world of carbon credits and rocket technology has come to the aid of people living in this rural community.  Another ground-breaking project devised by Seva Mandir and its offshoot UUI.

 

Felicia Pheasant

 
Photographs by John Pheasant