Social Entrepreneurs Develop Cleaner Alternative to African Wood-Burning Stoves

July 16, 2008

On his first trip to Ghana in September 2006, Mark Henderson traveled through countryside that was lush, but obscured with haze.

The haze was the first thing Henderson saw when his plane landed in Accra, the most populous city in this West African country on the Gulf of Guinea. "I could see the smoke permeating everything," Henderson said. "Villagers told me this smoke is suffocating and toxic."

Some of the haze was carried in by the Harmattan -- a dry and dusty West African wind that blows in from the Sahara at that time of year. But the rest, Henderson learned, is produced by the wood- and charcoal-burning stoves that villagers use for cooking.

Henderson, professor of engineering at Arizona State University's Polytechnic campus, is co-director of GlobalResolve, a social entrepreneurship program at ASU connecting students with projects designed to improve the lives of the rural poor in developing countries. What if the group could come up with a cleaner alternative to the wood-burning stoves?

What is GlobalResolve?

GlobalResolve is the brainchild of ASU Polytechnic professors Henderson and Brad Rogers (Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering Technology), Tempe campus professors David Jacobson (Global Studies), and Rajiv Sinha, a faculty member in the marketing department at W. P. Carey School of Business. The organization seeks to help lift the world's poor out of poverty. Multiple charities pursue the same goal, the professors noted, but through a centralized approach rather than pushing things out to the village level. GlobalResolve's ultimate goal is to build sustainable business ventures in the villages around solutions to village problems.

GlobalResolve distinguishes itself by focusing on sustainable projects. It also uses resources already in place -- at universities, in the villages, and by collaborating with students and professors abroad. For participating ASU students, each project becomes part of their academic workload and taps into the knowledge they have acquired through their studies.

The projects also give students a global awareness and confidence they might not otherwise get, Henderson noted. The clean burning stove project for instance, became a capstone course for this year's graduating students.

GlobalResolve has tackled four projects so far, all inspired from various trips to Africa:

  • Helping produce oil from the fruit of the Jatropha tree for use in lamps, boilers and diesel engines
  • Creating a water purification system for Fawomanye, a small rural village of 500 residents near Ghana's coast
  • Producing a neurosurgery device to help treat head injuries in South Africa's rural hospitals, an idea sprouting from the residency of a UK medical student and done in conjunction with Leeds University in the UK

The fourth project -- the smokeless stove system -- is the farthest along, and was the prime focus this year for GlobalResolve. Sinha, Rogers, Jacobson and Henderson have been long-time collaborators and tag-teamed their efforts.

The benefits of clean burning

For Africa, development of a clean burning stove could not be more timely.

Like rural women throughout Africa, Ghanaian women cook over wood or charcoal stoves. Wood is everywhere and it's free, but the resulting smoke causes severe illness in children. In 2005, the World Health Organization reported that respiratory illness causes 30 percent of the deaths among children under age five -- more than dysentery and AIDS -- and indoor pollutants are the biggest source. Another WHO report identifies the harsh trade-off: "Families like this are faced with an impossible dilemma … Don't cook with solid fuels, or don't eat a cooked meal."

A clean-burning stove addresses the health issue, but there are economic ramifications as well. GlobalResvole envisions a village business in the manufacture and sale of the stoves and fuel in Ghana and in other parts of Africa. Sinha says this is an opportunity for women, who could manage the business. Women, he said, have been shown to be more responsible with profits. "If we can save lives doing this and help these villagers make money then this would be wonderful."

Getting started

The groundwork for the clean burning stove and the water filtration project started during Henderson's first African trip in 2006. He first approached the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana. Henderson had reached out to the university from Arizona, but wanted to brainstorm in person. The professors were warm, helpful and clever, he said, and knew exactly which regions needed assistance and how the two universities could collaborate.

Following a suggestion from the KNUST professors, Henderson visited a rural bank to explore micro-financing for future projects, and then met with Ghana's Ministry of Energy in Accra to find out what the government was doing for the villagers in both energy and clean water. He then visited Fawomanye, which has no electricity and well water too salty for consumption. As soon as he saw the murky pond operating as the town's water source, he knew this was one place GlobalResolve could help.

In May 2007, GlobalResolve sent another team of ASU faculty and students and two collaborators from Washington, D.C.: Mark Kerrigan, an energy consultant who is also an ASU alumnus and former student body president, and Michael Ankuma, who provided the initial link to Ghana. The goal of this trip was to approach a village with a potential solution for the smoky fuel, the gel fuel stove project.

Through KNUST, the group met Nana Frimpong Afoakwa, Paramount Chief of the Domeabra Ashante region. Afoakwa holds a mechanical engineering degree from MIT and ran his own manufacturing business in New York for 17 years before returning home to Ghana after September 11, 2001. His uncle, the previous chief, had died and, according to custom, the queen mother appointed Afoakwa as next in line. A professor at KNUST who is also a sub-chief of the region alerted Afoakwa about the Americans and their clean burning stove idea. He was fascinated and suggested bringing this to his own village of 5,000 people.

On this second visit the group demonstrated the gel fuel stove at Afoakwa's village. "We asked the villagers what they thought of the problems of the smoke and if they wanted to change that. They embraced the idea, especially the women," Rogers said.

Making the gel fuel production system

With this encouraging feedback and a location for the prototype in mind, the engineering students back in Arizona got busy completing the gel-fuel production system. Full-time students, they often worked through the night on what turned out to be a multi-layered and time-consuming project.

The primary technical project advisors were Rogers and Jerry Glintz, Roger's colleague on the Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering Technology faculty. The group developed a system that could be deployed in rural Africa using only components and materials available in Ghana, Rogers explained. The resulting system consists of four integrated subsystems:

  1. Corn is milled and steeped, exposing the starches and converting them into fermentable sugars.
  2. Yeast is then added and the mixture is allowed to ferment for three to five days.
  3. Next, the resulting mixture is distilled to extract the ethanol.
  4. Finally, the ethanol is gelled, denatured and stored in sealed containers.

Student teams developed and then integrated these subsystems into a manual corn milling station, a firebox designed to steep and distill the corn, and a water-cooled reflux column still-mounted in a 10 foot-high structure. On top of the structure is a 250 gallon water container, which provides cooling water to the still. The firebox is designed to simultaneously distill as many as four 55-gallon drums, which are readily available in Ghana.

And more research

In January 2008, the third trip for GlobalResolve, Rogers and Henderson accompanied more students from engineering, business, history and global studies back to Afoakwa's village. This time they compiled data on things like lifestyle and culture, and explored whether this gel fuel would satisfy the villagers' needs. Questions included: Would you use gel fuel if it cost one Cedi, per week? (A Cedi is the unit of currency in Ghana and roughly equals US$1.) Would you prefer using and selling wood over gel fuel? Do you think the business would be more successful selling to villagers or to urban residents?

Student Andy Miles reckons the final system integration and checkout took 300 hours over six weeks to complete. "We've been busy and are pretty wiped out," Miles admitted.

Reaping the rewards

But the hard work has already paid off. On a warm April morning the students and professors presented the clean burning stove complete with all of its peripheral equipment to Afoakwa, the village chief. He'd flown from Ghana, especially for the honor.

"This is an excellent, excellent device that will turn my village around," he said, visibly moved. "It's going to save lives and make money for my people. I am immensely grateful."

Afoakwa thinks the stove project won't be profitable instantaneously but he already knows that the village women will be the direct beneficiaries. "The women can grow the corn themselves and use this for the ethanol, and this one model and design can be rebuilt and duplicated for other villages, at a price," he said.

GlobalResolve is all about collaboration and partnerships. The Whole Planet Foundation (the philanthropic arm of Whole Foods) is accompanying GlobalResolve on the next trip to investigate providing micro-financing for villagers to help create a supply chain of corn growers, fuel distributors and marketing and sales agents, expanding the benefits to others in the village and the surrounding region.

The local Kyrene School District in Tempe, Arizona also partners with GlobalResolve. Erin Kirchoff, a Kyrene teacher, went with GlobalResolve on the last trip to establish relationships with schools. Kyrene collected 1,000 pounds of books, which were shipped with the gel fuel system for delivery to schools in Domeabra and Kumasi.

The production system was packed up and shipped to Ghana in early June 2008 and ASU will follow up by traveling in August to help set up the system which will become the centerpiece of a sustainable venture for this village and others. Meanwhile, GlobalResolve has been busy helping other Ghana villages. Donations are being accepted for water filters for Fawomanye, and eight engineering students have been working on a purification system.

The stove project has become fruitful in other unexpected ways. When Miles, Brian Smith, Oliver Aobur and Nathan McRay -- all students on the project -- began studying engineering technology, they expected to look for conventional structural engineering jobs after graduating. Instead, Miles and several others launched a startup called Energy Derived, a company developing technologies to support the alternative energies market. Their first project is an algae de-watering system designed for the commercial production of algae bio-fuels. They have funding from the ASU Edson Student Entrepreneur Initiative (ESEI) to develop the first commercial prototype to be completed later this year.

"Working with alternative fuels is just more interesting and rewarding," Miles said.

"The alternative energies market is blossoming and the opportunities for those interested in sustainable and renewable technologies are enormous."

Funding for GlobalResolve has come generously from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, Women & Philanthropy, ASU/Kauffman Fund and the Office of Vice President for Research and Economic Affairs at ASU.

For more information email globalresolve@asu.edu or visit the website at http://globalresolve.asu.edu.

The Bottom Line:

  • The World Health Organization cites respiratory problems as one of the biggest causes of deaths of children under five in Africa. The smoke from the fires that women use for cooking is the biggest contributor.
  • GlobalResolve is a social entrepreneurship program connecting students with projects improving the lives of rural and poor people in developing countries. The clean burning stove project is one of several programs GlobalResolve is working on. Others include developing a water purifier, biodiesel production, medical devices, and waste management initiatives in India.
  • Growing numbers of students from several disciplines including engineering and business want to learn about sustainable and alternative energies. At the College of Technology and Innovation on ASU's Polytechnic campus, students involved in this clean burning stove project have since launched their own company that supports the alternative energies market.