During the time that working women in most parts of the world wake up, send off their kids to schools, fix breakfast, arrive at work, and even get some done, a mother in a Darfur refugee camp only manages to collect a stack of firewood and return home.
That too, if she’s lucky enough to not get raped and chopped up on the way by the janjaweed. A typical trek across the barren plains to fetch cooking fuel and water from the nearest depot takes seven hours.
Ever since Sudan’s ethnic conflict erupted in 2003, 300,000 people have been killed and 2.7 million uprooted from their homes, according to the United Nations. The displaced have been living in cramped clusters of fragile, tarp-and-twig makeshift shacks, strewn across Darfur.
Among the refugees, it’s the women, who face the most difficult dilemma of knowingly, exposing themselves to mortal danger or feeding their kids.
If they venture far from their camps, they run the risk of being sexually assaulted by bands of the armed Muslim militias backed by the government.
If they stay home, there’s no way of cooking the food (given that they have any) and they go to bed hungry. So, it’s a toss-up between suffering torture and starvation.
But this was before hope came in the form of a seemingly vapid kitchen gadget—a stove.
In 2004, as the world watched raw carnage spill across an area the size of France and thought of ways of extinguishing it, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) contacted Ashok Gadgil, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
“It was a call for help,” said Gadgil in a telephone interview.
Gadgil’s reputation preceded him. He’d been known to devise simple and cheap innovations to tackle some of the humanitarian problems plaguing the developing world.
In 1994, in response to an outbreak of a cholera epidemic in India and Bangladesh, Gadgil designed a compact and portable water-disinfection unit—UV Waterworks—which could purify gallons of drinking water, cheaply.
It cost a mere two cents to clean up 12 liters of water, even in far-flung rural areas, where personal incomes are usually less than $1 a day.
No bigger than a six-inch ruler, the device looks like a small fluorescent tube, similar to the ones that light up offices. But unlike those, these aren’t coated with a phosphor layer and are made of a special glass that’s transparent to UV light.
In 1996, it won two awards: Discover magazine declared it the most significant environmental invention of the year; Popular Science magazine applauded it under the “Best of What’s New” category.
Even in the years prior to that, Gadgil had won a pile of laurels. In 1991, he won the Pew Fellowship in Conservation and the Environment for his work on accelerating energy efficiency in developing countries; in 2002, the World Technology Award for energy; and the Tech Laureate Award in 2004.
A few months after USAID sought his expertise, Gadgil and his team of four, arrived in the dust-laden Otash camp, on the edge of Nyala, in South Darfur. They brought with them three kinds of stoves: two Indian-made and one American. On reaching Sudan, they procured an indigenous variety.
Their mission was to field test these equipment. Unfortunately, none passed. “So, they got down to the business of designing a concept for a whole new stove,” suited to the local realities, said Gadgil.
This entailed studying several parameters. To get a sense of their staple diet, they squatted with the locals around a meal of assida (a viscous lump of flour, cooked over fire) and mullah (sauce). They studied the shapes of their utensils; their culinary techniques as well as the velocity of winds that blew outside their shelters.
Their immediate goal was to build a stove that would, on the one hand, be more fuel efficient and on the other, produce more heat and at a faster rate than the traditional Sudanese model.
Neither the clay, nor the solar, nor the local variety was found to do that. They, hence, came up with a metal cooker, which was 75 percent more efficient than the three-stone fire used by the local population and used one-fifth the amount of wood.
It was christened the Darfur Stove.
By significantly cutting down the time spent by the women outside their camps, the new product also lowered their chances of being molested and maimed.
Once the blueprint had been drawn, next, it was a matter of mass-producing the cookers. The graft required a combination of “high-caliber engineering and cheap labor.”
“We realized that this couldn’t be done anywhere locally because it’d be a very costly operation,” said Gadgil. A part of the supply chain was, therefore, outsourced to India.
In a small factory on the outskirts of Mumbai, the stove design is stamped into flat plates of metal, using a tool akin to a sophisticated cookie-cutter. The resulting “flat-kits”—much like the furniture bought at the IKEA store—are then, shipped by sea to the Red Sea port of Port Sudan.
From there, they’re carried by road to the nation’s capital, Khartoum. A long-haul truck transports them further west to their final destination in Darfur. By then, the stove components have traveled a distance of roughly 3,300 miles.
The work of assembling the pre-fabricated parts takes place in a shop in El Fasher, in North Darfur. Operated by Sustainable Action Group—a local partner of the Darfur Stoves Project, overseen by Oxfam America—the facility employs refugees or Internally Displaced People (IDPs), who screw on the nuts and bolts, piece together the stoves, and roll them out.
The first 1,000 “Made in India” flat-kits recently arrived in Darfur. They’re currently being assembled in the facility there.
“Our current agreement with Oxfam America is to assemble and distribute 9,120 stoves in North Darfur by May 2010,” said Andree Sosler, Executive Director of the Darfur Stoves Project.
Besides minimizing the dangers to their lives, the stoves have also created jobs for the women. About 20 percent of the workforce is female, said Gadgil. They work in supervisory capacities, in roles that don’t require heavy-duty labor and are socially acceptable.
A collage of American engineering know-how, an Indian manufacturing base, and Sudanese grassroots power, the Darfur Stoves project is a success story at more than one level: it’s saving human lives, generating employment, and is, above all, a ray of light in the dark, war-racked region.
A native of Mumbai, Gadgil, 58, came to the U.S. as a student in the 1970s to follow up on a master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur. He earned a doctorate in physics from the University of California, Berkeley, where he stayed on to do more research.
Though Gadgil got his degree in the theoretical aspect of the discipline, it wasn’t his true calling. His passion lay on the applied side of the subject, where he’d use scientific principles to solve burning social problems.
“The Theory of Relativity spoke to my head, but not to my heart,” he said, with a hearty laughter.
He’s currently deputy director at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he leads a group of about 20 researchers as well as professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC-Berkeley.
Most of his present interests are focused on protecting building occupants from the threat of chemical and biological attacks.
Gadgil was recently awarded the prestigious Heinz Award in recognition of his enormous contribution as an inventor and his role in helping to better the human conditions in parts of the world riddled by poverty, pestilence, and warfare.
“When I see the names of the past Heinz Award winners, it’s humbling to see what august company I’m in,” said Gadgil. “I feel tremendously honored.”