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Learning as we teach: A dialogue with cooks by Caroline Ashley

"What can you do if fuelwood is scarce?" "Eat bread" suggested one woman. "Eat salad", said another. "Cook two meals at once", said a third. Such are the coping strategies usually employed by these women - cooks, mothers, farmers and tea pickers from villages around Gampola, Kandy district in Sri Lanka.

By the end of their training day the women have learnt about heat and combustion, why wet wood bums so badly, why the Anagi improved stove saves fuel and cooks faster. By 3pm, they are asking the questions: "we cannot afford 60 Rs each for a stove, so please can we buy a bulk order more cheaply?"

They have learnt about the Anagi stove. We, the promoters of the Anagi, have learnt how fuel-efficient stoves fit into the much wider objectives of grassroots community groups and their members - but also how difficult it is to assess just where stoves come in the women's own priorities.

The women are all members or officials of their village women's groups and are attending a one-day seminar hosted by their umbrella community group, Anthodaya, that covers several villages. Training is provided by IDEA - Sri Lanka's Integrated Development and Environment Association, which is working with ITDG to promote the Anagi two-pot stove.

Anthodaya's aims encompass all aspects of community development Anthodaya means the poorest. Many children here are malnourished, so one of Anthodaya's first activities was to set up a pre-school where soya biscuits are provided. Money, of course, is a daily pre-occupation, so Anthodaya provides interest-free loans for women to buy goats. A kid goat bought for 200 Rs will fetch 1050 Rs a year later.

After today's stove seminar, the Anagi stove will be another strand woven into the work of Anthodaya and the lives of its members. Anthodaya plans to buy bulk orders of Anagis and allow members of the women's groups to pay in instalments. Today's trainees, two from each village, will train their neighbours to install the stove in mud.

The coordinator of Anthodaya's Women's Groups explains how fuel-efficient stoves and goat-rearing are interlinked: the women collect branches, the goats eat the leaves, and when dry the remaining bare branches are used for cooking. So collecting wood, women are tackling two problems with one branch.

The Anagi also tackles two problems at once: lack of time and lack of money are the never-ceasing pressures on these rural women, and the Anagi stove can ease both. It can save time or money in fuel acquisition, and cut down cooking time. But how significant are the Anagi's benefits in the women's daily life? Are we meeting their priorities? That is what we want to find out.

The women are enthusiastic about saving fuel, explaining that prunings from the tea estates provide only a small portion of their fuel needs and they are having to walk further and further to find the rest. If a woman is working and cannot spare the time, buying fuelwood for 3 days costs 24 Rs (35p). With tea estate wages at 42-70 Rs per day, that is equivalent to up to half a day's income. The Anagi is estimated to cut fuel use by one third, so the potential benefits seem significant. If we stopped our questioning here, we would go home convinced that fuel savings are the most important and significant benefit for these women.
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Yet from the women's own descriptions of their daily work, faster cooking may be more important than time saved collecting fuel. We only discover this when, instead of asking standard questions about fuel use, we ask about a woman's typical day, using a pile of dried leaves on the floor to represent their rupees ort heir hours. One woman distributes 24 leaves into 7 piles to show how she spends the hours in her day: 3 hours for preparing dinner, 2 for preparing lunch, 1 for preparing morning tea, 2 for activities such as feeding and milking the cow and collecting fuel. Other piles represent childcare, agricultural work, washing, shopping and leisure. In fact, just half a leaf - 30 minutes - is specifically for collecting fuel. For this cook, just a 4% reduction in the 6 hours of cooking time would save as many minutes as a halving of the time spent collecting fuel. But cooking time is of great importance: despite the eloquent explanations of fuelwood scarcity, the broader questions reveal that maybe it is not such a priority problem in this area after all. It seems unlikely that fuel shortages are forcing women to switch to bread, salad, and less nutritious foods.

The leaves do suggest that lack of money rather than lack of fuel contributes to malnutrition. One woman adds 4 leaves, representing 20 borrowed Rupees, to her pile of 5 leaves - the 25 Rs she actually had to provide for herself and her son yesterday. Her leaf piles of expenditure show how 45 Rs is the bare minimum she needs to buy food, kerosene for lighting, and pay for her son's bus fare to school. Life, she explains, is a constant balance between paying back past loans and taking out new ones.

So one thing is clear: an Anagi will never solve her problems. It will not pay her debts or provide an income. We might not know the exact scale of benefits to expect from the Anagi, but we know what not to expect.

Trainers and trainees have learnt from the stove seminar. The women have learnt about one more way in which they can improve their lives. We have learnt how much more we have to learn from stove users, about their priorities and their views of the Anagi. But we have also learnt that the best way to ensure that improved stoves are meeting priorities of women, not stoves technicians, is to give the women and their own community groups the opportunity to incorporate stoves into their broader development work.
Last edited by Miriam Hansen .
Page last modified on Tuesday October 5, 2010 16:10:01 GMT.
  • A practitioner's journal on household energy, stoves and poverty reduction.



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