Improved cookstoves cut down on illness, not trees

Almost half of the world relies on biomass for cooking. In Zimbabwe, this figure is 74 per cent. This reliance on biomass has huge implications for health, environment, gender, and poverty alleviation. Exposure to smoke from indoor air pollution and the burden of fuelwood collection have many negative health consequences.

With so many communities relying on biomass, improved cookstoves can make a significant difference.

UNICEF Zimbabwe started an improved cookstove programme in 2015 and 2016 in Hurungwe and Nuanetsi. These improved cook stoves are cleaner, emit less smoke, are more efficient and use less wood. The projects also teach women to construct the stoves and train other women to do the same. The resources to make the stoves are free and locally available, and the women have been earning money through the sales of these stoves.

The project reached 3,480 households, with about 17,400 indirect beneficiaries. The Tsotso stove, used in most cases, reduced fuel consumption by as much as 39% compared to open fire cooking.

So what did we learn? Are the stoves suitable for cooking? What are the benefits and challenges of cooking with the Tsotso stove? Does it save money and fuel? Do community members recognize any other benefits from the stoves or this programme?

Community members not only valued the stove, but were able to identify specific positive outcomes from using it – it saved time and wood, reduced indoor air pollution and had health and hygiene benefits. In some cases, women reported that family members no longer had runny noses and eyes during cooking.

Focus group discussions with community members showed that the stove was suitable for cooking and easy to use. One stove user wrote a poem about it:

During winter I am a heater; I make it possible to have warm food when it is hot, when it is raining and when it is cold; you just lift me up and place me where you want; I am not subject to any rules, protocols or regulations; my name is the Tsotso stove.

Beyond reducing indoor air pollution and improving children’s health, the project also contributes to conservation of local forests, saves time spent collecting firewood, and has positive impacts on local economies. More children can get to school on time, because they spend less time preparing food and heating bath water.

Woman smiles as she stirs food in a pot over a clay stove
UNICEF/ZimbabweA woman cooks using a Tstotso stove at Nuanetsi, Chingwizi, Zimbabwe.

Awareness raising and training are central components. Information on the health and environmental benefits of improved cookstoves helps increase demand and support families in improving their health beyond using the improved stoves.

Families learn how indoor air pollution threatens health, and how they can significantly improve their health by cooking in environments with fewer emissions and more ventilation, like outdoors. Men and women also learn how to ventilate their kitchens, minimize pollution during the fire ignition phase of using the stove, and use appropriately dried firewood to reduce pollution levels significantly.

Media Nyamasoka, 35, from Karoi town, lives with her husband and 12-year-old son. She was identified as a community resource person who could train other women to build their own improved cookstoves.

During one home support visit, Media had this to say: “Before embarking on the improved cookstove project, my husband and I struggled to provide for my family. Now, thanks to this intervention, I had to mould more and more stoves, which culminated in selling about 200 Tsotso stoves at $3 each and 80 Jengeta Huni stoves in three months. We can now provide a balanced diet to our family and can pay school fees on time.”

Improved cookstove programmes have shown their potential to make a positive impact on communities – but success depends on a coordinated approach that includes advocacy and awareness about the stoves’ health, environmental and economic benefits. In designing the cookstoves and rolling out the programme, it’s important to also consider how families cook and what kinds of stoves they like. And information and awareness are key to making sure that people keep using their new, improved stoves.


Amy Wickham is a Climate Change Officer with UNICEF Zimbabwe.

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  1. If these stoves are helping in reducing GHGs we need to embark on mass production of the same and even export the stoves to other countries for the betterment of mother nature.